Rice and beans with collard greens: the America of Ray Barretto, 1929-2006

Ed Morales
27 February 2006

He told me it was a DJ that gave him the nickname, "Hard Hands", and it stuck. Maybe it's because everyone knew that when Ray Barretto pounded his conga, he was unravelling the mystery of the drum, and affirming its role as the "lead singer" of African-based music. Because of his presence in every step of the evolution of Latin music from the mambo to salsa, as well as its role in the development of rock, soul, and modern dance club music, Ray Barretto, who died on 17 February, was one of the most influential Latin musicians of all time.

Barretto had to leave his native Brooklyn and join the Army to find his passion. While stationed in Munich in the late 1940s, he heard a recording of "Manteca" by Dizzy Gillespie and his Big Band with the Cuban conga player Chano Pozo. "It changed my life," he once told me. "I got my discharge and came back to the United States, and I've been pursing that dream ever since." Barretto went straight to the key figures of his era to begin his career. He approached Charlie Parker after a Harlem gig and, in 1951, he had appeared on Tito Puente's album Barbarabatiri. By the end of the decade, he had played on albums by Gene Ammons, Red Garland, and Art Blakey, and scored a regular gig in Puente's orchestra, helping to anchor one of his most robustly brilliant albums, Dance Mania.

Like Puente and fellow giants of Latin music Eddie Palmieri and Willie Colón, Barretto was a Nuyorican (a New York-born and bred Puerto Rican), which meant that he performed a delicate balancing act between two traditions, two languages. Latin, or what Barretto would prefer to call Afro-Caribbean music, is already an elegant fusion between the religious and secular music of the African diaspora, the Spanish troubadour tradition (which itself carried influences from the Arab world and southern France), and the jazz that had already begun to flow south from New Orleans. To that mix, Barretto added his passion for post-bebop jazz, r&b, soul, and even rock and roll.

When Barretto began recording with his own band in the early 1960s, he dabbled in the pachanga fad coming out of Cuba, an edgy dance music filled with flourishes from charanga-style flutes and violins that had captured the fancy of his Nuyorican peers. But emerging from the pachanga-charanga nexus was a song called "El Watusi", the first crossover Latin hit single since Ritchie Valens's "La Bamba". "Watusi" had little to do with the discotheque dance craze – it had the charanga violins but loped along with a new, funky attitude that would soon become known as "bugaloo", a Latinized form of the African-American style boogaloo (sometimes referred to as "Latin boogaloo," or simply "bugalú"). Mixing r&b and Afro-Caribbean influences, bugaloo became the first bilingual pop music, and the essence of 60s Latin cool.

In 1968, a year after Latino con Soul, Ray Barretto released Acid, which is generally regarded as his most influential album. Click here for a review and more information on the album

"Boogaloo con Soul", one of the memorable tracks from Barretto's 1967 album Latino con Soul, slipped back and forth between English and Spanish, from rice and beans to collard greens, cha cha to soul – as if the bugaloo sound, which Barretto would modify in his collaborations with guitarist Wes Montgomery and electric keyboardist Deodato, was a crucial root to the acid jazz of the 1980s and 1990s.

But the vibrant Spanglish bugaloo sound fell out of favour, and as salsa emerged in its wake, Barretto paved the way. His 1972 album Indestructible, which featured him wearing a Superman shirt on the cover, was part of a series of albums that began to cement a working-class Latino identity in New York. The people remained bilingual, but as a sign of solidarity with the lands they left behind, the music was all in Spanish. A year later, half of Barretto's band left to form Típica '73 (that's setenta y tres), which became the most progressive roots-salsa band of the era.

Despite this setback, Barretto remained a central figure in the Fania All-Stars, a band set up by the legendary record label Fania, which wound up touring Europe, Africa, and Asia in the mid-70s. One Barretto solo during a Yankee Stadium appearance was said to have caused a wild impassioned rush to the stage that temporarily halted the show. Barretto capped the decade in 1978 with Rican/Struction, which is widely acknowledged as one of the finest salsa albums ever.

During the 1980s, the dreaded salsa romantica, a watered-down version of the politicized Fania era, was hard on the early giants of the genre. Palmieri, Puente, and Barretto all signed contracts with jazz labels. It was a move designed to solidify their prestige as serious musicians, and it also allowed them to indulge their longtime love of jazz. They became the elders of what became known as Latin jazz, linking back to the days of Dizzy Gillespie and the great Afro-Cubans Chano Pozo, Machito, and Mario Bauzá.

Barretto made some of the best Latin jazz albums, particularly because of his early tutelage with New York jazz masters. Ancestral Messages, Trancedance, and his finale, last year's Time Was – Time Is were brilliant, albeit under-recognized achievements. Ray continued to occasionally play salsa concerts in Puerto Rico, as well as split salsa/Latin jazz concerts at venues like Carnegie Hall.

Ray Barretto performs at the Lincoln Center
Ray Barretto performs at the Lincoln Center

The last time I saw Barretto was last autumn at the spanking new Dizzy's Club Coca Cola, a temple of opulence in the august halls of New York's Jazz at Lincoln Center: it was at once fitting for his mastery, yet somewhat swanky for the kid from Brooklyn. The great conguero seemed disoriented at times, rambling between songs. But the performance was one of the best I'd seen last year. Somehow as I left the café I was aware that it could have been near the end for him.

Then just a week or so ago, I ordered the DVD of Our Latin Thing, a vintage documentary montage interweaving a mid-70s Fania All Stars free concert in New York with scenes from everyday Nuyorican life in the barrio. And there was Ray, dressed in his pseudo-beatnik long shirts and turtlenecks, prodding on legends like Héctor Lavoe, Cheo Feliciano, Larry Harlow, and Willie Colón. Most of the time he was smiling. And I know that he'll always be there, in that hot sweaty moment when New York City was falling apart at the seams, having the time of his life, because his people had finally found themselves in their music.

Ray Barretto showed that as America was going through the idealism and tumult of the 60s and 70s, Latinos were embarking on their own multiculturalist experiment. Like jazz and rock and roll, bugaloo and salsa were quintessential American fusion musics, and were part of a legacy that gave birth to the current internationalist dynamism of hip-hop and even reggaetón, a ribald, rap-centred genre (even if it makes Barretto's generation balk). The era Barretto helped define marked the beginning of the end of the borderline between north and south, inevitably pointing to a future that the current conservative backlash can't begin to grasp, let alone hold back.

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