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Ray Barretto: Unforgettable

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Few humans have emanated a look of pure joy like Ray Barretto sitting at the congas. Captured in photographs, his mane fro'ed out, head tilted back with a devotional expression, his grin convulsed almost into a grimace, Ray was in the clutches of the divine.

A lion's heart stopped beating on Feb. 17 in a hospital in Hackensack, New Jersey. We knew him as Mr. Hard Hands: jazz innovator, latin soul pressure-cooker, salsa's Superman. Cool fusion was Ray Barretto's energy source: he fused conga drumming into bebop, put boogaloo onto the pop charts, slow-burned soul with latin dance rhythm, and poured New World spirit into jazz.

The heart of a drummer takes a real beating in a lifetime, and Ray Barretto's rhythm on earth was well spent. He taught himself to play at age 20 off Chano Pozo records, and soon was jamming with Charlie Parker at the Apollo. He was the sought-after conguero in the early jazz scene, and within a decade of when he starting playing, he replaced the great Cuban drummer Mongo Santamaria in Tito Puente's orchestra. Ray formed a charanga band (Afro-Cuban rhythm and strings) and scored the first Latin crossover hit in 1962 with a novelty boogaloo tune called "El Watusi." Ray's visionary Latin soul charts created deep hits for groove junkies like "Acid" and "Cocinando." He became a Fania All Star in 1967 and made a string of monumental salsa albums throughout the '70s and '80s, taking a Grammy with Celia Cruz in 1990. His latest jazz sextet, New World Spirit, earned critical acclaim and Grammy nods. Ray received the NEA Jazz Masters Award on Jan. 13, just a day before a heart attack that led to quintuple bypass and other complications.

Ray's ashes will be divided and scattered over New York and Puerto Rico--fitting for a man whose double life bridged Latinamericana and jazz. The Barretto family is naming a foundation to help musicians without health insurance in his honor, and a memorial concert to celebrate his life is planned for April, when he would have turned 77. A gentle giant has passed from the Latin music scene: indestructible, unforgettable, que descansa en paz Ray Barretto. --Sylvia Pfeiffenberger

Leaving Dresden

Sorry Abouy Dresden opens for The Wedding Present on Saturday, March 4 at the Cat's Cradle in Chapel Hill. Rumors have been floating through town that this will be the band's last show, at least in its current state. Next week, see Brian Howe's review of the show.

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