During the term of Franklin D. Roosvelt, the United States decided to try a new idea in our relations with the nations of Central and South America. This became known as the “Good Neighbor Policy”.
Before Roosevelt, we had not necessarily been good neighbors at all times. We had shown no compunction about invading a Central American or Caribbean country when it suited our interests (or those of the United Fruit Company).
And, although there was no governmental ukase telling us that we should expose ourselves to the music of these more humid zones–we were getting exposed to these musics and these rhythms anyway.
The rumba had come to our shores in the early 1930’s, as related in earlier articles on this Site. And the late Thirties saw a new rhythm brought over from Cuba—the Conga.
What set the Conga apart from the Cuban dances that had come before was a slightly faster tempo–and its “one-two-three-KICK” rhythm, which caught the public’s fancy once they had gotten a taste of it.
New York’s Cuban community already knew of the Conga by around 1937 thanks to Xavier Cugat. And, in 1939, it reached the Broadway and night-club crowd–helped along by a conga-drummer whose story was right out of Horatio Alger. He went by the name of Desi Arnaz.
Arnaz opened up at the “La Conga” nightclub on Manhattan isle in 1939, and soon was leading excited lines of tuxedo-clad males and evening-gowned society dames in long serpentine conga lines, snaking in, around, and out of the nightclub into the street.
Cartoons discovered the appeal of the Conga, as demonstrated by its appearance in such Warner Bros. ‘toons as Hollywood Steps Out (1940) and Lights Fantastic (1942). And it would provide gag material, even on a baseball field–as in Warners’ Baseball Bugs (1946) and in Terrytoons’ Mexican Baseball (1947).
And it even filtered down to the Miami eyrie of Max Fleischer and his crew–who got Popeye to go with the conga beat.
Kickin’ The Conga Round (copyright 1942) is a typical wartime Popeye short. Popeye and Bluto are back in the Navy, and while they are still adversaries, they are closer to being buddies than they had been in most of their earlier shorts.
The plot is pretty predictable. Popeye and Bluto are at liberty in an un-named Latin country, go out to see a girl who works as a dancer, an wind up at a night club that features the conga.
Popeye can’t dance at first, and is embarrassed by Bluto, until the one-eyed sailor man gets around some spinach, congas all over the place, and beats Bluto up–until they are both rousted by the Shore Patrol, .. After that, one figures there’ll be no more liberty for them–not for a whle, anyway.!
Aside from the conga rhythm, the music here is pretty generic in sound, played by what sounds like an underfed ten-piece band that features clarinet trios as a favorite voicing.
By the time this cartoon came out, it looked like Max and Dave Fleischer were being shown the door by Paramount Pictures. And with all the turmoil going on, you’d expect that the staff that remained might well have thought that they could take the story idea of Kickin’ The Conga Round –and do it better.
A couple of years later, they would get the chance to do just that!
Next Week: Popeye Goes Latin – Part 2