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Profile: Career Of Musician Ray Barretto


September 16, 2003
Copyright ©2003 National Public Radio, Inc. All rights reserved.


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

From childhood, Ray Barretto learned to navigate between two worlds. His experiences were a lot like those of many American Latinos who grow up in two cultures. As a percussionist, Ray Barretto has embraced both of his worlds, from his early infatuation with swing to dominating the Latin pop charts. NPR's Felix Contreras has this profile.


You could say Ray Barretto's baby sitters got him hooked on music. While his Puerto Rican-born mother was at school, he was at home with his brother and sister in their small apartment in the Bronx.

Mr. RAY BARRETTO: Well, the baby sitters were the people that I'd listen to on the radio when she went to night school to learn English. They were the big bands that were coming out of the different hotels and stuff would broadcast live. And I would listen to the radio until I heard the key at the door, and I knew my mom was back, so then I'd turn it off and make believe I was asleep.

CONTRERAS: Back then, Spanish-language radio in New York signed off at sundown. And while mambo was the music of his neighborhood, it was the king of swing who kept him company at night.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: Barretto remained just a fan until a tour in the Army took him to Germany. There he started sitting in with black GIs who were playing jazz at a local club.

(Soundbite of "Manteca")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Manteca. Manteca.

CONTRERAS: And he heard the record that would turn jazz and his life on its ear: "Manteca" by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and Cuban conquero Chano Pozo. It brought together in one tune Ray Barretto's two worlds.

(Soundbite of "Manteca")

CONTRERAS: Barretto was in the thick of it back in New York, carrying his conga from one jam session to another. One night, he was part of a warm-up act for legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker.

Mr. BARRETTO: Finally, Charlie Parker showed up and they sent everybody off the stage. So I was getting off and getting my drum to come down, and as Charlie Parker was going on stage, he put his hand on my shoulder and he said, `You stay.' Just those two words: `You stay.' So I stayed the rest of the week.

CONTRERAS: By the late 1950s, Ray Barretto was an in-demand session musician, adding a Latin fill to many jazz recordings.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: He approached the conga as a bebop soloist and insists he was not playing jazz with an accent.

Mr. BARRETTO: I think one of the advantages that I had was because of having listened to so much American music that I wasn't coming to it from a strictly island perspective, whether that island was Cuba or Puerto Rico, you know. I understood the genre, and so they called the tune--"All the Things You Are" or "Stella By Starlight" or just playing blues--I knew the form and I knew the tune.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: Barretto's jazz dates were numerous, but he was always a sideman. He decided he wanted to reconnect with his Caribbean roots. He started playing with a succession of popular Latin dance orchestras, including a three-year stint with Tito Puente. Then in 1962, he scored his own hit with the novelty tune "El Watusi."

(Soundbite of "El Watusi")

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: In 1967, Barretto's increasing popularity landed him a deal with Fania Records, a fledgling label that would eventually transform Latin dance music from a tropical retro specialty into popular music with a New York attitude. The music came to be called salsa and the Ray Barretto Orchestra was one of Fania's biggest stars.

(Soundbite of music)

Group of Singers: (Singing in Spanish)

CONTRERAS: Barretto recorded hit after hit for Fania for 22 years. But as the label's sound began to fall out of fashion and salsa dancers began to look to younger performers, he arrived at a creative crossroads.

Mr. BARRETTO: When I decided that my salsa days were on the wane--and rather than become a complete dinosaur in the genre, I said, `Let me go back to my roots,' which was jazz.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: In the 1990s, he recruited young musicians who played jazz as well as they played Latin music. He called his group New World Spirit.

(Soundbite of music)

Professor CHRIS WASHBURN (Columbia University): Ray Barretto serves in Latin jazz in a similar function that Art Blakey did in the jazz world.

CONTRERAS: Chris Washburn is a trombonist and assistant professor of music at Columbia University.

Prof. WASHBURN: His band serves as a school, a university, one of those few universities that are a dying breed these days. And so in many ways, we have to thank him for the years of the salsa school. I mean, he's a salsa professor and a Latin jazz professor and a jazz professor. And for that--that's where I think his biggest value lies.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: Ray Barretto's latest CD is a tribute to jazz drummer Art Blakey, who was part of the Harlem music scene that embraced the young conga player more than five decades ago.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: While he sees the new release as coming full circle, he's not quite ready to write his memoirs and he's still a little uncomfortable with the praise he gets from both musicians and fans.

Mr. BARRETTO: That only happens when people come up to me and say, you know, `Thank you,' which is beginning to happen a little bit more. It's scary, you know. See, I don't want to hear that. I want to know, `What's next?' you know.

CONTRERAS: At age 78, Ray Barretto shows no signs of slowing down. He and his band are scheduled to perform throughout the US and Europe through 2004. Felix Contreras, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music; credits)

SIEGEL: I'm Robert Siegel, and you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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