Peak power. Few albums have moments that just leave me breathless. Drop a needle, or seek to, any track on Ray Barretto’s Rican/Struction, and in a matter of moments, musical ideas that are operating at an otherworldly level, and are rendered in such ways that are nearly impossible for anyone to resist. Far be it for this mere mortal to say no to this one. Masterminded by the visionary Bronx conga player Ray Barretto, Rican/Struction still remains this vital piece of musical history showing how far salsa had gotten and how much further it could go, if/when it wanted to.
For nearly two long years Ray Barretto struggled coming to grips with things that were out of his control. In 1978, at the peak of his popularity, Atlantic was expecting huge things for Ray. Performing on stage at Yankee Stadium, it was his performance alongside Mongo Santamaria – the man he’d replace as percussionist for iconic salsa musician Tito Puente – that sent a whole stadium into a fever pitch, threatening to bring the venue down with him. Long the favored accompanist by a who’s who of rhythm icons like Charlie Parker, Celia Cruz, Deodato, and many more, few new how to navigate the insane amount of grooves that were sprouting up in America post-World War II like Ray. By 1978, he was expected to finally make due on his early promise.
Raised by a single mother in Spanish Harlem, Ray grew up listening to his mother’s Salsa records when she was around, then when she left them to work, by the Jazz music he’d heard on the radio. Artists like Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie become his surrogate fathers by osmosis. Returning from a stint in the military, overseas was where he developed his unique technique of conga playing. As a way to lift spirits, and pass time, Ray would take an unstrung banjo, and practice playing conga rhythms on its head – all to the Jazz he’d heard playing over GI radio. Jazz didn’t have any kind of history for conga players, what Ray did was make it so that there was a place for this kind of playing in that style. It’s what would allow him to have such a huge demand for session work from all sorts of musical styles and musicians.
Ever the explorer, when Ray joined Fania as an artist, he flipped the script on what type of sound was expected from a Latin label like Fania. Ray Barretto’s 1968 debut Acid combined R&B, Jazz, and salsa into a post-psychedelic musical stew of barely classifiable music that found a huge fan base in Boricuan neighborhoods. Not much of a partier, or drug/alcohol user, this quiet man, with a giant stature, would be more interested in finding the next session he could find or the next club gig perform. For Ray, music and earning an honest wage meant much more to him. In 1973, when the dizzying heights of expectation reached a fever pitch after barn burner albums like Barretto Power and From the Beginning, Ray was already in the throes of a powerful struggle. Torn by many goings on: being tasked to lead the Fania All-Stars, losing nearly all of his original band to a new band: Tipico 73, and now having to perform in front of a massive crowd at Yankee Stadium with the same crew that shunned him, deeply troubled him. In the end, Ray found reasons to let go and simply feel his way through his troubling period.
Performing alongside the man he replaced, as a younger man, in Tito Puente’s band (Mongo Santamaria) and as a member of the larger Fania All-Star band that put his wayward musical partner Adalberto Santiago in the limelight, Ray Barretto found another level to steal the whole show. Beating and banging his conga on the floor like a man possessed, with a zeal unlike anything heard before, it was his unbridled performance that sent all the Boricuan crowd to a frenzy and threatened to take Yankee Stadium down with him. It was that performance that spurred him to rethink what exactly he could achieve with this increasingly growing, younger audience.
Showing two sides of the musical explorations he chose to travel and unravel, 1973’s dual releases of The Other Road and Indestructible were musical signposts showing where he wished to fork from and where he wished to continue on. Fania expected hits, and Ray delivered them through peerless combinations of even more modal, complex Jazz-tinted Salsa that went further deep into African roots. For a brief three year period, either through live albums or as head of different iterations of the Fania All Star band, Ray had gained that musical freedom he had always wanted attain. Things took a downturn for the worse in 1978.
In that year, Ray tried his hand releasing albums on a different record label. Under Atlantic, Ray was promised a much wider audience and distribution. However, unknown to him, it would come at a price. Trying to repay the investment they made in his stardom, Ray tried to give Atlantic what they expected with 1978’s Can You Feel It. His search for a sound more in tune with Jazz-Fusion, quickly had to be scuttled for songs more along the line of popular/marketable styles like Disco, Funk, and Smooth Jazz. Trying to play both Latin and American audiences, Ray Barretto knowingly felt he had lost the plot and ideas necessary to make headway with any audience out there. At the time, when he should have been a mega star like Willie Colon, Ray felt like a miserable sellout. Things wouldn’t get much better after that. Just a few months later, while sitting in his parked car, another car crashed into the rear of his car, injuring Ray’s hands and rendering his career nearly out of existence.
Ray heard it on the radio. The sound of Willie Colon and Ruben Blades, progressive and urban, his music was no longer able to be something you’d hear on the radio. In the late ’70s, the Salsa Ray helped rocket to notoriety was now a young man’s game. He tried to play the game, but the massive flop that Can You Feel It proved that he wasn’t cut out to do so. For nearly two years, as Ray went to physical rehab to regain strength in his hands, something within him moved him to rediscover that early spirit that the industry was fitting to rob him of. If he was going to go down, he had to go down fighting. Nearly two years of rehab, would not be washed down the drain for music that had no feeling behind it. The title of his next album said it all: Rican/Struction. It was the sound of Ray rebuilding, restructuring himself and the music he wanted to make.
For Rican/Struction Ray made amends with his old bandmate, vocalist Adalberto Santiago from Tipico 73, and together reunited under the Fania label to capture a far more progressive Salsa sound. They began by searching for a roster of hungry, younger musicians who would have no qualms with any of the new routes they wanted to explore. Ray wanted a group that was willing to challenge what was expected to be heard or performed by a Salsa band. Deeper, more complex arrangements, that vacillated from improvisationally, harmonically rich Jazz movements that could seamlessly swing into simpler, more primordial lung-busting Latin grooves at the drop of the dime were some of the ideas Ray wanted his crew to capture. It was hairpin Salsa music that kept the listener dancing, but constantly in awe, waiting for the next unexpected peak the band to launch you through.
This might be the greatest gift Ray gave to us the listener. The ability to look back, with hindsight, and discover the confidence he had in us to follow what he was trying to do. He trusted us (as listeners) and our cognitive abilities to value the brilliant, challenging musicianship on display by never losing sight of the more important role such performances serve: to soundtrack those deeply personal moments in life, when worries just need to go away, and bodies need to move to the music.
This is where I’ll leave you. Take two of the most fascinating pieces of this album, “Un Dia Sere Feliz” and “Tumbao Africano”, and see if you can place what it took get these artists to perform in such a manner. Zero in on the flanging bass line of “Un Dia Sere Feliz” played by Sal Cuevas. What begins as a straightforward funky Salsa thump starts to get progressively harder, and more intense, zeroing in on the more modern, urbane feeling of a changing Boricuan culture. As the classic, Salsa brass section mutates to keep up with this change, and Ray beats through a whole series of increasingly hair-raising stop-start tempos and rhythms, as listeners we’re treated to music that places zero distance between the mind and the booty.
Ending the album on a dedication to all the African ancestors that fought and persevered to keep their culture alive by any means necessary, Ray zeroes the distance between folkloric and progressive. Spearheaded by Nigerian bata drums, Ray spearheads the rest of the percussionists to blend all sorts of branching soul traditions – mambo, Yoruban, guaracha, cumbia – into one inspired take on what brings people with vision together: a shared connection through struggle. Ending on a hopeful note, a true masterpiece in any tradition, Rican/Struction remains this magnificent thing one can draw strength and hope from, whether you’re a kid from the South Bronx or some inquisitive soul from Ukraine, Kuala Lumpur, Omaha, and any/all other points in between. You see, once again, when Ray was counted out by nearly everyone (including himself), he found a way to come back, and knock it out the park.