Sunday, September 18, 2011

How I Got Hooked On Salsa Growing Up in the Hood

The album that pushed me over the edge to be a salsa music lover

After all these years of listening to the late, great maestro Ray Barretto, I finally get to meet him personally when he visited the Caribbee Dance Center in Oakland, CA where I used to hang out and dance salsa. I had to walk over and shake his hand. I tried to tell him (before he brushed me off) that his album, La Moderna Llegó, pushed me over the edge to be a salsa music lover. Little did I know that he was literally sick of salsa. He even hated the name--calling it the “S-word.” In fact, some one quoted him as saying, I don't play salsa, I play son. Son is Cuban music that gave birth to what we know today as salsa. It's the “S” word that helped him to earned the millions of dollars over the years, not jazz--his true love.

Little did I know that Ray Barretto was so sick of salsa that he called it the “S-word.”

Barretto was born in New York City to Puerto Rican parents who moved to New York looking for a better life. Being raised in Spanish Harlem, he was influenced at a young age by his mother's love of music and by the jazz music of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. At the age of 17, Ray joined the Army, and while stationed in Germany, he got into jam sessions with African-American soldiers. Then he heard Dizzy Gillespie's "Manteca" with Afro-Cuban conga player, Chano Pozo, that was when he realized his true calling in life.

In 1961, Barretto recorded his first hit, "El Watusi.” Not only did this song hit number one on New York City African-American radio station WWRL but was the first Latin song to enter in April 1963 the Billboard charts.

After Ray Barretto returned home from the Army, he started to visit clubs and participated in jam sessions, where he perfected his own conga playing. On one occasion Charlie Parker heard Barretto play and invited him to play in his band, as well as Tito Puente, for whom he played for four years. Barretto developed a unique style of conga playing and soon was sought by other jazz band leaders. Barretto also played in recording sessions for the Rolling Stones and the Bee Gees. In 1975 he was nominated for a Grammy Award for the song "Barretto." In 1990, Barretto finally won a Grammy for the album Ritmo en el Corazon ("Rhythm in the Heart") featuring the vocals of Celia Cruz.

In my opinion, Guararé was the best song he produced; way better than the original Cuban version.

I heard him in an interview on KPFA Radio in Berkeley when he said it was time for him to move on. He made his money in salsa, now he wants to pursue his real love--jazz. On Febrary 17, 2006, Barreto passed away at New Jersey's Hackensack University Hospital of heart failure and multiple health complications. His body was flown to Puerto Rico, where Barretto was given formal honors by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture; his remains were eventually cremated.

My other top Ray Barretto tunes:

Canto Abacua Indestructible (featuring Tito Allen) El Chisme (featuring Celia Cruz)

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