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World Music Legends

Ray Barretto

By Tom Pryor
Published July 14, 2006


Few musicians can boast a career as varied, lengthy and influential as Ray Barretto. The legendary conguero first made his name in the ’50s as an in-demand session player for jazz cats seeking a little Latin sabor, then helped usher in the boogaloo craze with his 1961 hit “El Watusi,” the first true Latin record to storm the Billboard charts. In the ’70s his work as musical director of the Fania All-Stars made him one of the heroes of the golden age of salsa. In the ’80s Barretto dabbled in funk, television and musical activism, and by the ’90s he had returned to Latin Jazz, opening it up to all kinds of new influences with his New World Spirit ensemble. Today, at 76, Barretto is still going strong, bringing his “hard hands” and keen creative sensibility to bear on his latest solo release, Time Was/Time Is (O+ Music).

Ray Barretto was born on April 29, 1929 in New York City. His parents were immigrants from Puerto Rico, part of a great wave from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean that would transform East Harlem into el barrio. And growing up in East Harlem, Barretto absorbed both his mother’s love of music from back home, and the swinging big band jazz of the era. Bandleaders like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Chick Webb were still the rage then, but by the time the 17-year-old Barretto joined the Army in 1946, the bebop revolution was in full swing. A new guard of musicians led by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and others were launching a full-scale frontal assault on the jazz establishment, but Barretto was stuck in an Army barracks in Germany as part of the postwar occupation force.

Still, he managed to get his hands on a copy of “Manteca,” Dizzy Gillespie’s groundbreaking 1947 record with Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo—one of the first great Latin Jazz hits—and Barretto knew that he had found his mission in life. While still stationed in Europe, Barretto met jazz vibraharpist Fats Sadi, who would also help point him in a musical direction. Barretto began to learn the rudiments of the conga drum, as well as reading and arranging music.

Upon his discharge in 1949, Barretto immediately returned to New York, where he began to frequent the jazz clubs, both uptown and on 52nd Street. He began to sit in on jam sessions and descargas, paying his dues and becoming increasingly well-known as a conguero (conga player). By the ’50s the mambo craze had taken off, and African-American jazzmen were eager to incorporate Afro-Cuban sounds into their music. Opportunities for a gifted young Nuyorican conguero came fast and furious. One of Barretto’s first breaks came when none other than Charlie Parker asked him to play in his band. This would lead to gigs with other bandleaders, including a four-year stint with Tito Puente.

Barretto recorded with a number of different bandleaders throughout the ’50s, including Jose Curbelo and Puente, and by 1960 had signed on as an in-house studio musician for the Prestige, Blue Note and Riverside labels. But in 1961, Barretto stepped out to record under his own name for the first time, and scored a huge hit with “El Watusi,” a loopy novelty hit that inspired a dance-craze (“The Watusi”) and helped pave the way for the ’60s boogaloo explosion. Barretto rode the various Latin musical trends of the ’60s, from pachanga to boogaloo, and still managed to keep one foot in the jazz world. But in 1967 he signed with the Fania record label, a move that would change his career and the course of Latin music in the U.S. for good.

His first release for the Fania label was 1967’s Acid, an experimental freakout of a record that lent a psychedelic gloss to Afro-Cuban and R&B grooves. A classic of its kind, Acid was to be one of the last great New York Latin soul records before the salsa explosion.

That same year, a pair of<

Recommended Recordings:

Time Was/Time Is
O+ Music OP 109

La Cuna
Sony 66126

Que Viva La Musica
Fania B000055YH1

Acid/Hard Hands
Nascente B00005Q3WY