From salsa to jazz and back

Salsa legend and congo player Ray Barretto graces Tel Aviv with a fresh sound from his new album.

ray baretto 88 (photo credit: )
ray baretto 88
(photo credit: )
Raised in Brooklyn and Spanish Harlem, 76-year-old salsa legend Ray Barretto was practically raised by his mother's collection of Puerto Rican records. "The music became my babysitters while my mother went to night school to learn English," he recalls. But his performance at Tel Aviv's Zappa Club this weekend may surprise those accustomed to his salsa tunes. Barretto plans to showcase his new album Time Was Time Is, which merges jazz tunes with beautiful Latin rhythms and percussions. Yet Barretto is quick to reject the term "Latin Jazz." "There is Jazz ,which is American, and there is Latin music, which is Latin and Hispanic…. there is Jazz merged with Latin rhythms, but no Latin Jazz," says Barretto, speaking with The Jerusalem Post from Puerto Rico. "This will be completely different from my Eilat Jazz festival performance 12 years ago. There, I played with a salsa big band. I changed my music from salsa back to jazz shortly after I played in Eilat." "I sometimes have problems with audience expectations... I hope I will not disappoint the Israeli audiences," he says. Barretto says his latest album is about struggle and survival. It tells the story of the Puerto Rican percussionists and musicians who were responsible for spreading salsa around the world and introducing more Latin rhythms into jazz. Like Barretto, they started out in poor New York neighborhoods and gained recognition through their music. Despite Barretto's humble beginnings, his musical career has been impressive. Born in Brooklyn in 1929, Barretto's Puerto Rican family moved to Spanish Harlem when he was young, and then to the Bronx. It was at that time that Barretto's father abandoned the family, leaving his mother to raise the three children alone. "At 17 I enlisted in the army and was stationed in Munich as part of the occupation forces…. Being a light-skinned Puerto Rican, I was placed with the white soldiers... and that was hell," he recalls. "I joined the army because my life was going nowhere," he added. During that time, some black soldiers took Barretto to a local Jazz club where they held jam sessions . There he met other European players and was introduced to the music he fell in love with - Bebop. Dizzy Gillespie and his percussionist Chano Pozzo inspired Barretto to become a professional percussionist. "Of all the percussionists, [Cuban-born] Chano Pozzo influenced me most," Barretto says. "When I finished the army I started to tour the jazz clubs of Harlem, and little by little, people started to call me," he recalled, Jazz was in Harlem and the Latin bands played in the south Bronx, he explained. In Spanish Harlem, Jazz and Latin music were merging, and by 1957 Tito Puente needed a percussionist. Barretto took the job. He was a sideman on many Jazz recordings, but in 1961 formed his own Salsa band and recorded his first record, Pachanga. The following year, he recorded Latino, which is considered his best Latin album. In the mid 1960s, Jerry Masuchi - an American Jew who loved Latin music - started Fania All Stars studios to revive and promote Latin music, establishing salsa as a legitimate genre. Barretto joined Fania All Stars studios in 1967, and became musical director in 1975. "I was already trying at that time to infuse Jazz into Fania recordings," he said. By making this musical maneuver now, Barretto is in many ways coming full circle. "He is back where he started," commented world-renowned percussionist Rene Martinez, "he's returned to jazz." While happy to be back in Israel, Barretto insists he's intent on avoiding the politics of the Middle East. "I despise politics and ideology… people should deal with each other through humanity… and music brings different people from different cultures and races together." Barretto will perform four concerts at Tel Aviv's Zappa club. Two on Thursday, the 17th at 7:45 and 10:30, and two on Friday the 18th at the same times.