Ray Barretto, 1929–2006

Mi amigo, Latin music's most intellectual cat, made sure we listened

Like I said, it was a long time ago. But what made it sizzle was how good they were. After Puente, Ray did two albums on his own that have been reissued as Carnaval. Listen to how strong the Cuban influence is here, and the use of strings. The Barretto we know starts rounding into focus musically, though on his third album, 1962's Charanga Moderna, he still wasn't using the brass-dominant conjunto lineup of the later Fania years. (Scorsese used the tension-filled "Ritmo Sabroso" on the Mean Streets soundtrack.) However, this is the album that generated what Ray said was his "curse" for many years, "El Watusi." The first big crossover hit that rode a simple boogaloo bass line.

Ray always appreciated being able to take care of his family ("That's why I did all that session work, unless it was also with the jazz cats I really loved"). But "El Watusi" for a while became an albatross. "It was all the kids wanted to hear. And the label always wanted another one."

So, going to Johnny Pacheco's and Jerry Masucci's start-up Fania label in 1967 with Acid was something of a rebirth: "It was like 'Watusi' had never happened. I could start fresh." Maybe that's why without trying the title track actually stands up today as a musically far better piece than "Watusi," though outwardly, both are in the same Latin boogaloo vein.

Ray Barretto playing at Lincoln Center
photo: George Rivera
Ray Barretto playing at Lincoln Center

The music that followed in those years was breath- taking. Made for the dancers, it was tight, but there were always other tracks that hinted at more. Which is why no one was surprised when Ray came out years later with The Other Road, La Cuna, Handprints, Ancestral Messages, Trancedance, Homage To Art, and Time Was . . . Time Is. In recent days, I've come to appreciate more what he was doing, listening to these again (and somewhere he's going, "I told you you'd get it when I was gone, bro").

But for a generation of us, and the kids (and grandkids!) we've raised, and the "We're here, damn it!" flags we've planted, it will always be about those musicians he put together. And on conga, bringing home the sound of skin on skin, standing up and pounding that drum into the floor to make a point like he did with the Fania All Stars that time at Yankee Stadium when it looked like Mongo's sheer musicianship was going to take the duel of the drums . . . damas y caballerosEl Gran—Ray Barretto!!

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