That was Desi Arnaz's signature call, which he sang while hitting a big drum hanging on his hip from a shoulder strap and dancing a conga step. The wily Arnaz had lifted the move and the song from Miguelito Valdés, a popular Cuban artist known as Mr. Babalú (the Spanish spelling of the word).
Arnaz was America's notion of a Cuban, Ricky Ricardo in the TV series. Mild Latin lover charm and sex appeal, thick accent in English, and exasperated outbursts of rapid-fire Spanish (sometimes laced with profanities the audience could not detect) when wife Lucy's antics became too much, as they did week after week. He was a lovable Latino, a threat to no one, and cute when he got mad. He was laughable because, after all, this was a comedy.
Years ago a colleague who shall remain nameless and today writes for a major publication, was a bit of a wag. In the office of our publication, which was major in a minor mode, he took to calling me "Babaloo." Obviously, I reminded him of Desi/Ricky, and though I didn't do conga steps down the newsroom slapping a drum, I was the designated Latin music critic.
I knew from early school years that showing irritation at a clever nickname was a surefire way to make it stick. So I showed none when he called me Babaloo. One day though, I said, "Do you know what that word means?" And I proceeded to tell him about Babalú Ayé, an orisha, or as popularly known, a "saint", in the Yoruba pantheon of Afro-Cuban religion. A powerful deity in Santería, evoked by the song Miguelito Valdés and later Desi Arnaz sang.
"He oversees your feet and your legs", I said. "Which is why he is depicted as a cripple on crutches." And I added, matter-of-factly. "He determines if anything will happen to those parts of your body, if you will walk or be a paralyzed invalid for the rest of your life."
My colleague looked dazed and confused as I explained the backstory of that cute Cuban Desi Arnaz and his signature chant.
And he never again called me Babaloo.