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Ray Barretto: The Beat Goes On

Ray Barretto performing live at the Kennedy Center.
Ray Barretto performing live at the Kennedy Center.
Cover for Homage to Art Blakey(Sunny Side, 2003)
Cover for Homage to Art Blakey(Sunny Side, 2003)

Percussionist Ray Barretto has been playing both jazz and Latin music for more than five decades. In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, NPR's Felix Contreras profiles a musician whose career highlights the often-divided nature of Latino culture in the United States.

Barretto remained just a fan until a tour in the U.S. Army took him to Germany, where he started sitting in on congas with black GIs who were playing jazz at a local club. Then he heard the record that would turn jazz, and Barretto's life, on its ear: "Manteca" by trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and Cuban conguero Chano Pozo. That one song brought together Ray Barretto's two worlds.

Soon he was in the thick of it back home in New York, carrying his conga from one jam session to another. One night he was picked by legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker to sit in with the band for a week and by the late 1950s, Ray was an in-demand session musician, adding a Latin feel to many jazz recordings.

He decided he wanted to reconnect with his Caribbean roots. So he started playing with a succession of popular Latin dance orchestras including a three-year stint with Tito Puente. In 1962 he scored the first hit under his own name with the novelty tune "El Watusi."

By 1967, Barretto had a solo deal with Fania Records and was at the forefront of a burgeoning music scene that became known as salsa. his 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.

After the salsa craze faded in the late 1980s, Barretto moved back to jazz, forming his group New World Spirit in the early 1990s with a cadre of young musicians who played jazz as well as they played Latin music. With Barretto at the helm, New World Spirit churned through musicians and became a proving ground for young stars on the rise.

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. And at age 74, Barretto shows no signs of slowing down. His band is scheduled to perform throughout the United States and Europe through 2004.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.