Ray Barretto: How I Remember “El Watusi”

Ed Hamilton on the late percussionist and bandleader

I remember Ray Barretto for his 1963 hit “El Watusi”, a rhythmic-pachanga dance tune that was a big hit across the Pop charts. Although I was unaware that I had already heard his sound on Lou Donaldson’s “Gravy Train” and “Blues Walk.” More so, I’d heard Barretto’s conga with Gene Ammons on “Jungle Soul” w/Kenny Burrell. And he was later with Herbie Hancock and Willie Bobo on “Inventions And Dimensions”. Again with Burrell and Stanley Turrentine on “Midnight Blue” famous for Burrell’s ‘Chittlins Con Carne’.

Ray and I met in 1977 at Dave’s Pasta House in Montebello, California. A great show and dance place where he put his conga prowess on display. It was his first gig in California. We talked about his beginnings playing conga. “I started playing with ‘El Rey’ Tito Puente and would moonlight and play with all the heavies who recorded for Blue Note and Prestige.” He was also featured on Wes Montgomery’s Verve recording--”Tequila”. The sound of his drum was his moniker on any record and you knew it was Ray Barretto. He told me how he got his inimitable sound, “I use to play with my drums sitting on the floor and not on stands---this gave me my indistinguishable sound.” It was distinctly recognizable and he explained, “I would place my conga on the floor and play it while standing and this gave the set the sound needed.”

Ray Barretto is the unchallenged Guinness Book World Record holder for most recorded conga player in the history of Jazz recording. Ray has played conga on more recordings than anyone in the history of jazz music recording. His resume is a who’s who of jazzmen---all of whom requested his conga playing on their recordings: Kenny Burrell, Stanley Turrentine, Gene Ammons, Lou Donaldson, Herbie Mann, Shirley Scott and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. Ray was “House” conghettoist recording for both Prestige and Blue Note labels, many times alternating playing sessions on the same day.

Ray was born in New York City after his parents moved there from Puerto Rico and raised him in Spanish Harlem. Influenced by his mother’s love for music and by the jazz music of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, he joined the Army at 17 and was stationed in Germany when he got his calling to play congas after hearing Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca” with percussionist Chano Pozo---it was then he realized his true calling---to play congas.

In 1949 he returned home from the service and started jamming in clubs and was heard by Charlie Parker and was invited to play in his band. He later joined ‘El Rey’ Tito Puente’s band and stayed for 4 years. Ray had developed a unique way of playing congas and was sought by other jazz band leaders. Because of Ray’s musical influence, other Latin percussionists were now hired and appeared more frequently in jazz groups.

New York had now become the center of Latin Music and the style was called “Pachanga”. Using a South African tribal name, Ray recorded his first hit ”El Watusi”---a pulsating, rhythmic tune incorporating his conga, violins, trumpets, bass, and piano. It was the first Latin song to enter the Billboard charts in 1963 and was a national hit. In ‘67 he joined the Fania label started in 1964 by percussionist Johnny Pacheco and attorney Jerry Masucci. He later became the musical director of several all-star recordings called “Descargas” (Jams). The “Allstars” consisted of Barretto,Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Pacheco, Celia Cruz, Larry Harlow, Willie Colon, and Bobby Valentin. The “Allstars” performed concerts all over the world; London, Puerto Rico, Panama, Havana, Chicago,Yankee Stadium, and Madison Square Garden. They later performed for 63,000 in Kinshasa, Zaire with James Brown for the Ali-Foreman Heavyweight Championship fight.

Ray recorded with the Rolling Stones and Bee Gees and had several Grammy nominations for Barretto, Barretto Live---Tomorrow, and in 2006, he finally won for Ritmo en el Corazon with vocals by Celia Cruz. Ray was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master for his contribution to jazz recordings. He recorded approximately 200 albums and CDs from 1964 to 2006.

Ray Barretto died of heart failure on February 17, 2006. His conga sounds influenced many others who followed:Patato Valdes, Willie Bobo, Jerry Gonzalez, Joe Cuba. Ray Barretto’s last group was called “New World Spirit” and his conga playing spirit is permanently ingrained on the hundreds of recordings left as a testament to the conghettoist who truly was the Heavyweight Champion of the Conga drum---Ray Barretto---”El Watusi.”

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Ed Hamilton