Ray Barretto

Powerful conga drummer


Raymond Barretto, drummer and bandleader: born New York 29 April 1929; married 1978 Brandy Rivera (three sons, one daughter); died Hackensack, New Jersey 17 February 2006.

The power of Ray Barretto's conga drumming was remorseless and unstoppable. At a concert with the salsa group the Fania All Stars at Yankee Stadium in New York in the Seventies, he played a duet with another conga drummer, Mongo Santamaria, that drove the massive crowd into such frenzy that the concert had to be abandoned.

Salsa music was his forte, but it was for his work at the roots of Afro-Cuban or Latin jazz that he was best known in Britain. For 40 years he was in demand to play and record with the top soloists, including Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Red Garland and Art Blakey. The music was basically hard bop rather than Latin, but the muscular power of Barretto's drive put it into a new perspective.

Barretto hated the term "Latin jazz" but it is what he and Dizzy Gillespie played at Gillespie's famous big band concert at Carnegie Hall in 1961, beautifully recorded and still a big selling album in Britain.

Born in 1929 in the Puerto Rican community in Brooklyn, New York, Barretto listened to both jazz and Latin music as he grew up. He began playing when he was 16 and sat in at jam sessions whilst with the US Army in Germany in the late Forties. He was first drawn to the music by hearing Gillespie's record of "Manteca", which featured the legendary Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo. Pozo was to remain Barretto's greatest influence.

Back in New York, he was at first unable to find genuine Latin drums, so he stripped the strings from a banjo and used the exposed skin as a drum.

Barretto was in a band at the Apollo Theatre on a bill to be topped by Charlie Parker. When the band finished, Parker, who had been listening from the wings, came on stage as the musicians were leaving. "He put his hand on my shoulder," said Barretto, "and he said 'You stay!' I spent a week jamming with Bird and I was in heaven for seven nights. He could have had my services until he died."

Barretto recorded his first album in 1961 and as a result of its success formed his first band, Charanga Moderna, in which he used a flute and strings. In 1962 the band had a hit record with "El Watusi" and albums for other labels followed, but he was never able to capitalise on the success of the hit. None the less, he recorded more than 20 albums for the Fania label, mostly salsa, but still using jazz. His films included Our Latin Thing (1972) and Salsa (1976).

He recorded rhythm and blues, salsa and Afro-Cuban jazz for a variety of labels in the Eighties, including Blue Note and Atlantic, before joining the Concord Piquante label in the Nineties, concentrating mostly on Latin jazz. In all, Barretto made more than 50 albums as a leader. He also recorded with the Rolling Stones and the Bee Gees.

His final album, Time Was - Time Is, released last September, was nominated for a Grammy award.

Steve Voce

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