by Bobby Sanabria & Elena Martínez

Benny Bonilla, Nuyorican percussionist, remembers his early trips to the bakery:

Willie Bobo took me there. I just went with him at first because he was buying skins, but I kept going back there. After you buy the drum you have to go back periodically because you have to buy new skins and attach them yourself with nails. I used to go back every week because I liked what he had. I would notice, I didn’t recognize them at first, but as I got older, I noticed I was looking at all the stars of Latin music and rhythm. All the drummers—(José) Mangual, Mongo (Santamaría), Chonguito—he was the drummer for Tito Rodríguez. . . . They would all hang out there in the back. It was like an open door—you could see right to the back where all the drums were, and they would be sitting there every day, except when they had to go down to the union. He (Simón) had all the skins in a big box, thin, heavy, depending on how heavy your hand is. For example, I would have to buy a thin skin to get a sound. Luis Miranda, Ray Barretto would get a thick muleskin because their hands were like hammers. I wish there was more history on Simón because he did a lot for musicians. That was the only place you could go for drums in the 1940s.

After choosing the instrument which would make him an icon, Ray began working with Eddie Bonnemere, José Curbelo, and Tito Puente, as well as numerous jazz artists on recordings during the 1950s and into the 1960s, including Dizzy Gillespie, Oliver Nelson, and Rudy Van Gelder; and he also worked on pop albums as well, such as Sympathy for the Devil by the Rolling Stones.

Becoming a bandleader in the early 1960s, he had success with a charanga-style ensemble (a Cuban dance band that utilizes flute and violins), forming La Charanga Moderna in 1961, incorporating the trumpet and trombone within the traditional style. In 1962 he released the album Pachanga Baretto. In 1962 TICO Records recorded the album Charanga Moderna that included “El watusi.” With this song he became the first Latin-music musician to make the Billboard pop chart.

Ray signed with FANIA in 1967 and was given complete freedom to express his love for Cuban-based dance music combined with a jazz aesthetic. Ray stated, "Jazz has always been at the core of what I do musically." After signing with FANIA he dropped the charanga format he had been using and formed a conjunto (a small Cuban-style group utilizing two trumpets). He then started to compose tunes that mixed R&B with Afro-Cuban elements—what came to be called Latin bugalú. His early FANIA recordings include Acid, Hard Hards, and Together. These first three albums redefined the Cuban conjunto sound that Arsenio Rodríguez had developed in the 1930s, with a harder edge reflecting New York City’s urban environment.

Barretto received a blow when in 1972 his best musicians—Adalberto Santiago, Orestes Vilató, John “Dandy” Rodríguez, René López, and Dave Pérez—left his orchestra to form the band Típica 73. Depressed, he put together an album project for FANIA that showcased his jazz ethos, The Other Road, which featured the legendary jazz rock drummer from Panama, Billy Cobham. Ray finally retuned to the world of salsa with an explosive comeback album entitled, Indestructible.

In January of 2006, Ray was given the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Master Award, the highest award a jazz musician can achieve in the United States. A fitting tribute to this son of Brooklyn, El Barrio, the Bronx, and jazz.

Content credits Center for Puerto Rican Studies