Ray Barretto was a driving force in ushering the sound of Latin music into the popular consciousness. His hard-hand sound was a perfect balance between the gritty energy of the streets and the subtlety of the jazz that he had loved since childhood. In an interview with NPR, Ray related an underlying secret to his sound: “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. ...MORE >
Ray Barretto was a driving force in ushering the sound of Latin music into the popular consciousness. His hard-hand sound was a perfect balance between the gritty energy of the streets and the subtlety of the jazz that he had loved since childhood. In an interview with NPR, Ray related an underlying secret to his sound: “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.” That balance was in full force on his album Latino con Soul, where the old guard charanga style that he had been working in was giving way to a new sound, boogaloo, which mixed American R&B with Latin rhythms. The combining of these two worlds would open Ray up to even greater artistic heights than he had hit before.
By1967, boogaloo was really catching fire as the preeminent Nuyorican music with artists like Ricardo Ray, Joe Cuba, and Pete Rodríguez leading the charge. Barretto’s first hit single, “El Watusi” from Charanga Moderna, had actually opened the door for the boogaloo sound a few years earlier in 1962. But at the time, he decided to leave the R&B influence behind and continued to work in the popular charanga style, which he did for the better part of the ’60s.
Ray’s life had always been full of music. When he was a kid, he would listen to the big bands late into the night as his single mother was out taking English classes. Later, he would find a safe haven from racial prejudice in the Black officers’ nightclub while stationed in Germany as a young man. It was during that stint in the Army that he heard the explosive performance by Cuban
percussionist Chano Pozo on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca.” Ray felt empowered and for the first time truly understood his purpose. In an interview with the Austin Chronicle, he remembered, “That song blew my mind. It was the basis of my inspiration to become a professional musician.”
Upon returning home, he dove headfirst into his new passion, playing conga with everyone from Charlie Parker to mambo big-band leader José Curbelo and eventually landing a gig with Tito Puente’s orchestra. Ray remembered that, after their performances at the Palladium on Sunday nights, Tito wouldn’t let them leave: “You had to stay after the gig to rehearse.” He continued, “So when people left at the end of the night—three o’clock in the morning—we’d wait an hour till the place was cleared, then we’d rehearse every Sunday from four till six, seven o’clock in the morning. Then we were allowed to go home.”
Tito’s dedication and hard work ethic rubbed off. As Ray kept himself busy with one foot in the Latin music world, the other foot was firmly planted in the jazz world. He found himself as the go-to conguero in New York and performed on numerous jazz recording sessions for labels like Blue Note, Prestige, and Riverside.
But by the mid-’60s, the times were changing, and Ray knew that he needed to keep his music fresh. One spark that really ignited his band was the addition of two exciting singers, Adalberto Santiago and Pete Bonet. Adalberto brought the sex appeal, with his rich baritone, while Pete’s rambunctious, funky soul influence gave the proceedings a real party flavor.
Adalberto Santiago had sung for various bandleaders, including Chuíto Vélez, Willie Rodríguez, and Willie Rosario. But when Ray saw him perform at the famous New York nightclub El Caborojeño on 145th and Broadway, he knew the singer’s depth and musicality would help take his group to the next level. “We played together for only a couple of months before recording Latino con Soul,” Adalberto remembers. “We would test out the songs in the [clubs].” There was no money or time for long studio sessions in those days, so the groups would have to use live gigs to rehearse new material. “I think we spent maybe two days recording!” Adalberto says, laughing.
This album marked a major turn for the band. While there are still holdouts from the charanga days with the use of romantic-style strings on cuts like “Lo Mismo Que a Usted” and “Love You (Eras),” producer Henry Jerome knew that the vibe on the streets was a punchier sound and therefore brought the horns to a more prominent place in the mix. Ray kicks things off with the Justi Barreto composition “Bilongo.” He wisely uses the fun-loving cut to signal his new direction. The track starts out as a simple piano-driven, charanga-styled tune and slowly builds by adding in elements like soul claps alongside the countrified strings until, about halfway through the song, an onslaught of horns announce that it’s a new day. The horns keep coming on the cookin’ proto- salsa guarachas, Trompeta y Trombón,” “El Picor,” and “Fuego y Pa’lante.”
The boogaloos begin with “Boogaloo con Soul,” an unusually slow boogaloo that is more of a blues cut than the typical up-tempo R&B style. It is also quite a bit longer than most radio-friendly boogaloos, clocking in at just over five minutes. Ray utilizes the extra space to give the track a bit of a bebop format. The strings and horns each get a short solo section, but by reining the strings in and using them as a percussive element, he keeps the track in a distinctively more soul vein.
The real party starter here is the second boogaloo, “Do You Dig It?” Pete Bonet is in fine form as he gets things going with a soul-clap section where he asks the eternal question, “Hey, baby. You wanna party a while?” as Adalberto and the boys give the only logical answer, “Yeah, yeah!” Pete responds, “Well, come on and boogaloo with me!”
And for the next few years, that is exactly what Ray Barretto did. He joined the Fania Records family shortly after releasing Latino con Soul. It was a move that would complete the transformation he started with this record. By fully embracing Latin soul and leaving the strings behind for a full brass sound, he was able to step into the contemporary scene and blow its lid off with the masterpiece Acid. Ray Barretto was always straddling the Latin and jazz worlds, but it was his innate ability to balance the soul of New York with the heart of the Caribbean that would ignite dance floors and minds alike.