Born on April 29, 1929, in Brooklyn, NY; son of Puerto Rican immigrants. Addresses: Booking--Justin Fink, Pan American Music, 6407 Overbrook Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19151.

A leading force in contemporary Latin music for more than four decades, percussionist/bandleader Ray Barretto has helped define and popularize salsa, the distinctive blend of traditional Latin dance music and American jazz. Along the way, Barretto's musical interests progressed from dance music to pure jazz. To the conga player, best known for his propulsive style as a performer, it was just part of a natural evolution. "It was time to move on," he told an interviewer for San Francisco/Bay Area Salsa & Latin Jazz Online. "The Latin dance music changed, and I don't think for the better. It became very fluffy and corny, with little substance. So it came a time where I realized I had to take the next step."

The son of Puerto Rican immigrants, Barretto was born on April 29, 1929, in Brooklyn, New York. After his father abruptly left the family when Ray was only four years old, his mother Delores moved her three children to the Bronx. She worked during the day and studied English at night so she could find a better job. For Barretto, an asthmatic, music was his only joy. He spent long nights listening to the big band sounds of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Harry James on the family radio. School was an ordeal for Barretto because he was a claustrophobic child who found it difficult to sit still in class. At age 17, he begged his mother to let him quit school and enlist in the Army, where he could escape the racial intolerance he had experienced in the streets of New York City.

Unfortunately, the military proved no haven from bigotry. "The Army was still segregated at the time," he told an interviewer for Paris Free Voice. "Being a light-skinned Puerto Rican kid, I was put in the white section. I caught so much flak from mainly Southern GIs, inflicting their prejudices on me." While stationed in Europe, Barretto found refuge in a nightclub run for and by black GIs. "All the talk was about Dizzy [Gillespie] and Bird [Charlie Parker] and bebop. It was very exciting." Particularly influential for Barretto was Gillespie's recording of "Manteca," which featured Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo. "That song blew my mind," Barretto told the Austin Chronicle. "It was the basis of my inspiration to become a professional musician."

When he was discharged from the Army in the late 1940s, Barretto bought himself some conga drums and began hitting jam sessions after hours in the nightclubs of Harlem and elsewhere in New York City. Developing a distinctive style of his own, he rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in jazz, including Parker and Gillespie; for a few years he played with Jose Curbelo's band.

In the early 1950s the mambo was taking New York by storm, rivaling the popularity of bebop. Barretto found himself drawn to the city's Palladium dancehall, home of Tito Puente's hard-driving Latin orchestra. He was particularly impressed with the work of Puente's percussionists, Willie Bobo and Mongo Santamaria. When Santamaria left Puente to join Cal Tjader's band, Barretto was tapped to replace him. Away from the band, he continued to pursue his interest in bebop and sat in on numerous recording sessions during this period. Although he really didn't start playing the congas until he was about 20, Barretto soon found himself in high demand as a studio musician, working hundreds of sessions for the Blue Note, Prestige, and Riverside record labels.

In 1962 Barretto put together his first band, calling it Charanga la Moderna. Later that same year the fledgling group released a single entitled "El Watusi," which quickly became a nationwide hit. It was around this time that Barretto established what would be a longtime relationship with Fania Records, a New York-based label specializing in Latin music that Barretto once described as the Latin version of Motown. Barretto eventually became the music director of the label's Fania All-Stars, a coalition that over the years included such notable Latino musicians as singers Ruben Blades and Hector Lavoe, trombonist Willie Colon, and pianist Larry Harlow. Looking back on his years as the leader of Charanga la Moderna, Barretto told the Austin Chronicle: "Many great years of salsa followed. Though [we were] not always commercially successful, the level of music was generally good and sometimes creative and great."

Barretto and his band kept busy during the 1960s, recording dozens of albums before the decade ended. Some of the more memorable titles from this period included Viva Watusi!, Acid, Fiesta en El Barrio, Alma Alegre, Hard Hands, Soul Drummer, and Encendido Otra Vez. Among the singers who worked with Barretto over the years were Ray de la Paz, Ruben Blades, Adalberto Santiago, and Tito Gomez.

Although Barretto's salsa band was among the most popular of its kind for nearly 30 years, he began to feel increasingly frustrated by salsa's musical limitations. In the early 1990s he released Soy Dichoso, his farewell salsa album, and shortly thereafter announced the formation of a jazz ensemble called New World Spirit. Discussing this change in musical direction with an interviewer for San Francisco/Bay Area Salsa & Latin Jazz Online, Barretto said: "The thing I always wanted to do with this group was to respect the genre of jazz. I did not want to play dance music any more. Much to the dismay of many people who thought I was a dance band kind of person. But the fact is that I'm a music kind of person."

With New World Spirit, Barretto recorded three albums for the Concord label--Handprints, Ancestral Messages, and Taboo; in 1996 he signed with the French Owl/EMI label, releasing the critically acclaimed My Summertime. In 1997 Barretto and New World Spirit released Contact on the Blue Note/EMI label. An eclectic blend of jazz standards and Barretto's original compositions, Contact was both a popular and critical success. Reviewer Paula Edelstein of All About Jazz said of Contact: "As deep and enjoyable as each piece is, what gives the CD its impact is the vehement delivery by Barretto which portrays the profound impressions left by his musical mentors and his revolutionary development as a result of their influence. He introduces a facet of this influence on 'La Benedicion' and 'Liberated Spirit,' both original compositions by Barretto that focus the listener on the dynamic forces surrounding his imagination. Jazz definitely receives the respect it deserves at the hands of this jazz linguist."

In an interview with the Paris Free Voice, Barretto and interviewer Tim Baker discussed the many images evoked by the word "contact," which Barretto had chosen for his album's title. "All these parallels have some validity," Barretto said, "but the truth is I thought of 'Contact' as a title because it was short, to the point, and grabbed your attention. It was only after I had put all the music together that I made certain analogies between it and points of contact in my life that were inspirational to me, starting with my childhood."

Asked by the Paris Free Voice interviewer how long he intends to keep touring, Barretto replied: "As long as I can. It's what I do 'cause I have to do it, and it's what I do 'cause I love to do it."

by Don Amerman

Ray Barretto's Career

Began playing the conga drums while stationed in Europe with the U.S. Army, late 1940s; returned to New York, played congas for free in local clubs until eventually landing a job with Eddie Bonemere's Latin jazz combo; later worked with Jose Curbelo's band; made recordings with such jazz notables as Cannonball Adderley, Dizzy Gillespie, Wes Montgomery, and Red Garland; replaced Mongo Santamaria in Tito Puente's band, late 1950s; formed own band, 1962; recorded actively, 1960s-1980s; formed New World Spirit, a Latin jazz sextet, 1992.

Ray Barretto's Awards

Grammy Award, Best Tropical Latin Performance for Ritmo en el Corazon (with Celia Cruz), 1989.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

September 13, 2005: Barretto's album, Time Was ... Time Is, was released. Source:,, September 14, 2005.

February 17, 2006: Barretto died on February 17, 2006, in Hackensack, New Jersey, of heart failure. He was 76. Source:,, February 24, 2006; New York Times,, February 24, 2006.

May 23, 2006: Barretto's album, A Man and His Music, was released posthumously. Source: All Music Guide,, May 29, 2006.

May 23, 2006: Barretto's album, A Man and His Music, was released posthumously. Source: All Music Guide,, May 29, 2006.

May 23, 2006: Barretto's album, A Man and His Music, was released posthumously. Source: All Music Guide,, May 29, 2006.

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 14 years ago