Hard Hands - Ray Barretto
April 29, 1929 -February 17, 2006
Percussionist, band leader, NEA Jazz Master & Grammy Award Winner
Hard hands, warm heart, Ray Barretto s legacy remains in the beat of our metronomic
clave of Latin New York streets. From el barrio to the boogie down Bronx, from “do or die
Bed-Stuy” to as far as France, musical tributes to the Puerto Rican percussionist are
blasting from radios from the four corners of the world. Here in Spanish Harlem, the
womb of salsa music -where Rafael Hernandez opened the first Latin music store in
1927– many remember Ray Barretto.
I first heard Ray over AM radio when I was 13. I turned my transistor to Cousin Brucie and
heard the sounds of Barretto’s hit, “Watusi” moving my mixed Boricua blood. I did not know
then that Ray Barretto had already made a name for himself on the jazz scene. All I knew
was that this music belonged to my "hood and here it was on AM radio sandwiched
between James Brown and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. We had arrived!
His was an aggressive sound with sophisticated swing at a time when Rays band was
the hottest thing in NYC. You could count on Ray to have the best musicians, creative
arrangements and the most danceable of repertoires. When "Indestructible" was
released, it stood out by dint of its cover photo fronting Ray as Clark Kent in the process of
morphing into Superman. This was not your average corny cover of the time sporting near
naked women or a bunch of ugly guys. This was a cover that related to my Boricua NYC
life. Like the real Superman, that cover featured an ordinary man about to give us some
extraordinary music that healed our souls while moving our bodies and nurturing our
minds towards further horizons.
More than 30 years later, that particular tune, “Indestructible,” remains the standard by
which all young timbaleros are measured. From Oreste Vilato (Santana fame) to Little Ray
Romero (Eartha Kitt), Barretto always picked his boys from among the best. And when
these two left for greener pastures, Barretto s remarkable eye for talent fell on Little Jimmy
Delgado, barely 17 when he debuted with the Barretto band. Vocalist Ruben Blades had
already recorded but it was with the Ray Barretto orchestra that he got his spotlight in New
Ray Barretto loved jazz, falling for the conga after hearing Chano Pozo’s recording of
“Manteca” with Dizzy Gillespie in 1947. Ironically, “Manteca” became Barretto’s on his
debut recording with Red Garland. While he loved to play and make people dance it was
the world of jazz that would expand his perspective lifting his "muse" to higher ground.
Ray Barretto: Un Boricua that made us proud to hear him play on American radio, made
us proud to see him sharing stages with Chick Corea, James Moody, Kenny Burrell and
Ramsey Lewis, and made us proud to dance to his music from the most prestigious
music venues to the meanest streets. His sounds are part of the soundtrack of our lives.
While Hippies rocked at Woodstock, we (salseros) took the field at Yankee Stadium moved
by the thunderous power of Boricua Barretto s drum playing alongside the Cuban Mongo
Santamaria and the African Manu DiBango. "Que Viva La Musica" was our national
"street" anthem, while "La Hypocresia and Falsedad" helped us look at ourselves and
stem the crabs-in-a-basket mentality that affects all poor communities.
I grew up to Ray Barretto as many Latino baby boomers did. His growth in music
paralleled our growth as a community, coming of age in Nueva York where we danced
between cultures while keeping the clave of our African ancestral roots alive.