January 15, 2021

Barretto Power


By Armand Lewis

In 1947, be-bop pioneer and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie hired the Cuban percussionist and composer Luciano Pozo González, better known as Chano Pozo. Among their first compositions together was the classic tune “Manteca” which, when released on record in early 1948, would usher in an entirely new genre of jazz. Initially called “Afro-Cuban Jazz” it would lead almost directly to the Mambo/Cha-Cha craze of the early 1950s which, a decade later would develop into Salsa.

Much of the progression of Latin Jazz from the 1950s forward can be attributed to a teen-aged Army recruit stationed in post-war Germany, who heard the Gillespie Orchestra recording of “Manteca” and decided that when he got back to his native New York, he would play jazz in that style.

Born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican immigrants, as a teenager, Ray Barretto was uninterested in school and, hoping to escape the racism of the New York streets, joined the Army at age 17, only to find that the military was almost as racist as U.S. civilian life. 

Seeking refuge from the mistreatment led the young private to discover the jazz clubs that were set up for Black G.I.s stationed in Germany. This is where Barretto heard his first bebop records. “All the talk was about Gillespie and Charlie Parker and bebop. It was very exciting,” Barretto later said. Gillepie and Pozo’s “Manteca” particularly impressed him. “That song blew my mind… It was the basis of my inspiration to become a professional musician.” 

Once discharged from the service and back in New York, Barretto began playing congas in local jam sessions — working his way up to a proficiency that caught the attention of Gillepie and Parker themselves. Sitting in with Parker, Gillespie and many of the bop modernists led Barretto to become the go-to conguero to add the Latin touch to such LPs as Lou Donaldson’s Blues Walk, Kenny Burrell’s Midnight Blue and Red Garland’s Rojo
and Manteca. 

The New York Times would note that Barretto’s “subtle and responsive style of conga playing intended to complement the standard jazz rhythm section of piano, bass and drums.” Later recordings with (among many others), Freddie Hubbard, Yusef Lateef, and Wes Montgomery would confirm this appraisal.

Barretto’s own recording career took off after Tico Records released his second LP Charanga Moderna which contained the hit “El Watusi.” This kicked off a decades long string of albums for Tico and later Fania which solidified Barretto’s standing as a powerhouse of Latin music. 

Basically all of Ray Barretto’s many albums would rotate in and out of print over the years, but one LP would somehow not be re-issued on vinyl until now. Finally, Craft Recordings has released a 50th anniversary edition of Barretto’s 1970s classic Barretto Power (Craft/Fania CR00330). 

 Despite the strong trumpet section of Roberto Rodriguez, Rene Lopez, and Papy Roman, this is an album driven almost entirely by the rhythm section consisting of Louis Cruz on piano, Andy Gonzales on bass, Orestes Vilato on timbales, Tony Fuentes on bongos and Barretto himself on congas.

Oye la Noticia (“Hear the News”) and “Perla del Sur” (“Pearl of the South”) feature vocal choruses, which give the album more of a traditional sound, while the record truly comes alive with the street anthem “Right On,” which somehow remains timely after all these years. 

The album closes out with the title track “Power.” The only instrumental on the LP, this tune rolls along with a steady gait, while the horn section, the piano and each of the percussionists explore the rhythmic undercurrent of what could have been the soundtrack for a 1970s New York crime movie.

By the early 1990s, Barretto would move away from Salsa and into what he felt was more of a jazz oriented style. “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.” 

Armand Lewis buys and sells rare jazz LPs. He can be reached at


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