by Bobby Sanabria & Elena Martínez

Photo by Evelyn Collazo , circa 1970

Raymond Barretto (April 29, 1929 - February 17, 2006) was, like one of his old employers, maestro Tito Puente, the quintessential Nuyorican, a person of Puerto Rican descent born and raised in New York City. It gave Ray the advantage of growing up with his own native Puerto Rican culture and that of Afro-Cuban music and jazz. By the time he was two, his family had moved from the Red Hook section of Brooklyn to Manhattan's eastside enclave of Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Italian culture, El Barrio, aka Spanish Harlem. At seven he moved to the South Bronx. His boyhood friends included pianist Eddie Palmieri, bassist Dave Pérez, timbaleros Orlando Marín, Manny Oquendo, Mike Collazo, Benny Bonilla, and record store owner and producer Al Santiago. The blind virtuoso of the Cuban tres, Arsenio Rodríguez, would invite him to participate in rumbas at his apartment and the Club Cubano on Prospect Avenue. Barretto was also influenced by the music his mother listened to, such as Daniel Santos, Bobby Capó, and Trío Los Panchos, while at the same time in the neighborhood he could hear Arsenio Rodríguez, Machito, and Marcelino Guerra performing at local clubs.

In 1946, when he was seventeen, Barretto enlisted in the U.S. Army. While stationed in Germany, Ray fell in love with jazz. He was inspired by Dizzy Gillespie's recording of "Manteca," which featured Chano Pozo on conga. When he returned home he bought some bongos, but he really wanted a conga drum so he spent $50 on one at what was most likely Simón’s Bakery in Harlem on Lenox Avenue. Back in the 1940s and 1950s if you needed congas or bongos you couldn’t always stop into your nearest music store. Back then, many of New York’s Latin music percussionists went to the Moderna Bakery located at Lenox Avenue between 115th and 116th Streets owned by Simón Jou. Simón was an Afro-Cuban émigré from Havana; it was not surprising to find a Cuban bakery on Lenox Avenue in the middle on Harlem because since the 1930s Black Cubans had been settling in the area between Lenox and Lexington Avenues from 110th to 118th St. Mario Bauzá, the musical director for Machito and his Afro-Cubans, had arrived from Cuba in 1926 and fell in love with Harlem where Blacks lived and worked. Being Afro-Cuban himself, when Simón returned and settled in New York City in 1930, this is where he chose to reside. When asked about the bakery, most musicians remember Simón as a tall, white-haired, kindly gentleman. Though he was kind, when it came to drums, he was very strict. If you stopped in requesting a drum or skins for drumheads, he would make sure you were a serious drummer. He would tell you, “Siéntate,” and ask you to play a basic tumbao (repetitive rhythm) on one of the drums he had hanging in the room behind the bakery. If you passed this test you could buy one of the drums. If you wanted a custom-made drum, he would trace your hand on a piece of paper so he could get a drum head of the correct size.

Content credits Center for Puerto Rican Studies