When I got the news that Ray Barretto had been taken from us February 17, I cried. And then I went back to the music.
And listened. Something Ray always used to teach young bloods like me. “Open your ears, man,” he’d say, but he wasn’t just talking about music. “You think you know. You don’t know.”
Ray was born April 29, 1929, in Brooklyn, then moved with his family at an early age to the South Bronx. He was the most intellectual cat I knew in the Latin music scene, but truthfully, it was far more than a scene—more like the score to what was exploding and emerging all around us. In the early ’70s, Ray presided over the transition from it being called “Latin” to “Salsa!”
“Salsa!” wasn’t just a word. There was something different in this Latin music than in the eras before, about the force in the charts that drove the brass, about the sheer drive pushing the rhythm section. About how the lyrics, or even the feel in some instrumentals, were about more than “Mami, I love how you move your waist.” They were about injustice, and fighting back. This was our Latin thing, not our parents’.
In late 1969, Ray was the first of the “name” musicians to seek out the militant group I had helped form, the Young Lords Party, and ask if he could do anything to help. It was a big deal when his great band played a gig at 110th Street at a benefit for us (“Some of the Cuban cats in the band, though, ain’t too crazy about this,” Ray said. “They think you guys are too much like Fidel”).
Ray was about as “Black” in his awareness as any Puerto Rican of that time. Meaning the love of jazz that brought him, in the service stationed in Germany at 17, back to the Latin music of his roots via Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo’s “Manteca,” also made him see that Jim Crow and segregation were still alive and well in America’s armed forces. He had to find the joints where Black servicemen could go. Listen to “De Donde Vengo” from 1969’s Together LP, which gets to the essence of the “y tu abuela, Àdónde está?” (“and your grandmother, where is she?”) controversy among some light-skinned Puerto Ricans who somehow thought the slave ship had skipped their family. There’s a reason why he did tracks called “Power” or “Que Viva la Musica”, why his albums had titles like The Message.
When I went to federal prison in May 1973, Ray had a dinner for me the night before at his home. When I finally got placed in Tallahassee, Ray once came up to the northern end of Florida to visit after playing a gig in Miami. But because he wasn’t immediate family, the Bureau of Prisons didn’t let him in. I never forgot that.
In 1976, at the Beacon, I helped stage what would be a kind of farewel from Ray to his salsa chapter; the show became his Tomorrow . . . Live album. We reassembled all the fine musicians of his bands up to then—Tito Puente even came in for a guest stint (“The music has gotten insular, and the money is worse than ever, bro. I’ve had it with the infighting, the pettiness,” Ray said. “Tito has the right idea: I’m putting together a smaller unit and playing jazz dates at colleges, and clubs in Europe and Japan”).
A typical Barretto move: He pulled me from backstage, where I was very comfortable, and asked me to co-host—with Felipe Luciano, whom I’d had a falling out with during our Young Lord days six years earlier. “I want
both you guys there with me. This standoff is bullshit.”
But back then, Ray never took this advice himself regarding a certain Eddie Palmieri. Ray had come out of Puente’s band (“The week I joined”—replacing Mongo Santamaria, no less—”we went into the studio and cut Dance Mania.” This is like joining Springsteen two days before Born To Run). And Eddie came out of Tito Rodríguez’s band. Puente and Rodríguez had the biggest rivalry of the post–World War II, Palladium-era.
With all due respect to the other cats who were swingin’ in the ’60s and ’70s, what defined the parameters of both the music and the Latin New York Identity that was emerging were the “Barretto-Palmieri Wars.” The album-by-album metiendo mano punch-counterpunch/can-you-top-this/in-your-face-motherfucker between Ray and Eddie. In recent years, of course, the two giants were each able to respect what the other had done—and even, yeah, admitthat the other guy had helped inspire some of their best.
But I am here to tell you that man, this rivalry was serious. Eddie, manic, inspiring me to call him the Madman of Salsa, only half kidding when he said his dream was to provide the soundtrack during a riot. “You see, bro?” Ray would say in that low drone of his. ” ‘Madman of Salsa.’ It’s Eddie that sends you guys over the top, pounding the keyboard with his elbows and shit. But what the fuck is he playing? Come on, man, it’s the same changes! Here I am, laying down some jazz shit, and you guys are drooling about the elbows!”
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.
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 caballeros—El Gran—Ray Barretto!!