March 3, 2006

Que Viva Ray Barretto

By Roberto Lovato
New America Media

New York’s master percussionist, Ray Barretto gave me the song they will play at my funeral. I have asked those closest to me to make sure that “Que Viva La Musica” (Long Live the Music) is there at my death because the powerful guaguanco beat, the cloud-piercing trumpets, the heartfelt chorus and simple lyrics of his live version of the song have lifted me up at every key moment in my life since I first heard it more than 30 years ago.

The alegria (happiness) and simple depth of the song grabbed me the first time I heard it. My older brother Ramon was preparing to clean the house. He put the song on as background music and before I knew it he was clapping the clave (percussion part), chanting and singing as he cleaned. The memory of the song and the image of my brother in San Francisco’s Mission district in 1976 still go together as a symbol of what mattered then: that we had moments of overcoming hardship despite the many challenges facing my Salvadoran family’s version of 1970s Latino poverty. Barretto made 13-year-old me feel recognized, that I mattered — and that I had a reason to celebrate something.

For the past several days, many of us have been playing “Que Viva la Musica,” “Cocinando” and other great Barretto Latin jazz and salsa songs to celebrate his life and to honor him in his death. Surrounded by his family, Barretto died last week at the age of 76. “Hard hands,” as he was known, was one of the epic musicians who, along with Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Hector Lavoe and other giants, evolved salsa and Latin jazz to global acclaim. He helped push our music out of its silence and onto the radio waves.

From the time Grammy winner Barretto released his first big hit, “El Watusi,” generation after generation of Latin and jazz music lovers have found a Barretto tune to call their own. Many of us admired how Barretto was one of the only Latino musicos to play at the anti-apartheid Sun City concert.

The Brooklyn-born Puerto Rican Barreto’s passing last week across the Hudson in Hackensack marks a personal milestone — and a reflection on the Latino condition — for millions of us in New York and beyond. A local radio station is dedicating 25 hours of programming to the great conguero; a local DJ friend told me ceremoniously this morning, “I spun several of his songs and played them real loud at a gig I played last night.” John Santos, pre-eminent percussionist not known for his literary skills, sent out a poem upon hearing of Barretto’s passing in which he thanked Barretto for his “great strength” and “giant love.”

My brother Ramon, who taught me to hear and see Latin jazz as a music that speaks to our then-little-known brown, bilingual U.S. experience told me, “He was the one, the first one I identified as a conga player. Those rhythms got me dancing. I never thought I would be playing. His example helped me believe. He was a bad-ass.” Ramon, a percussionist, will be playing Barretto in New Mexico in his honor.

I imagine my brother cleaning his house — and crying — as he dances. Last year, I called Ramon from a club and held up my cell phone to let him hear Barretto playing many of the songs that made him famous. I told my him of my plan to walk up and ask Barretto to play the song. After Barretto finished the first set, I walked up to the stage and told him about what the song meant to me, and thanked him for bringing “Que Viva la Musica” into my life. He put his hands, thick from more than 60 years of slapping the congas, to his heart, bowed and said, “Thank you, brother. That means a lot to me.” I asked if he would play the song during his second set and he said he’d try. As he played the second set, he stirred happy twenty-something kids in baggy clothes. He touched dressed up thirty-something couples who held each other as he played one of his unforgettable solos on his beloved conga. Forty- and fifty-somethings closed their eyes, memories of a time when being Latino meant you held your head lower.

After Barretto said “Thank you everybody. I love you,” I was happy but disappointed that he didn’t play “Que Viva la Musica,” one of the first albums I bought; the song I played before pursuing my beloveds and after breaking up; the song that I listened to before going to wartime El Salvador and after I came back searching for meaning; the song that will always raise my head.

That was one of his last concerts. And although I cherish “Que Viva la Musica,” it was not the most popular of his life’s work. The chance to be there as a witness during one of his last performances overwhelms whatever urge I had that night to hear that song. It still sings to me, after all. I can still hear the way it sounded that first time in San Francisco, and I will continue sing it until my time comes.

Struggling to find the words to express my gratitude and my sense of loss for Barreto while I listen to “Que Viva La Musica,” I instead find a gesture, one I first saw used to honor friends and fallen heroes in Latin America. Head up, I raise my left fist and say, “Que viva Ray Barretto, Que Viva la Música.”

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