Ray Barretto’s Hard Salsa Masterpiece

Ever since the song “Indestructible” was released on the Ray Barretto album of the same name in 1973, listeners have shouted along to smooth-voiced vocalist Tito Allen singing “Yo traigo la fuerza de mil camiones/A mi me llamen el invencible” (“I bring the strength of a thousand trucks with me/ They call me the invincible one”) and moved to the beat of Barretto’s thundering conga to psyche themselves up to face another day of life’s battles. But, as anyone familiar with the lore of New York’s Latin music scene knows, for the percussionist and bandleader, the song was more than a Latino anthem. It was personal.

“No one knows or understands what I suffered then,” Barretto later confessed in an interview with the Puerto Rico newspaper Primera Hora. About a year earlier, most of the musicians in his band had decamped, including his former singer, Adalberto Santiago, and Cuban timbales player Orestes Vilató. Left without the artists with whom he’d developed his modern Latin dance sound, Barretto turned to jazz and recorded the album The Other Road. Then, with the coaxing of friends like trumpet player Roberto Rodríguez, bongo player Tony Fuentes and Colombian pianist Eddie Martínez, he convened a new salsa group. Together with engineer Jon Fausty at Good Vibrations Sound Studios, Fania’s recording headquarters at the time, Barretto’s new group made an album that would go on to endure as one of the most powerful hard salsa albums ever.

Order Ray Barretto’s Indestructible now.

Indestructible opens with “El hijo de Abatala.” The great Puerto Rican composer “Tite” Curet Alonso’s deeply grooving nod to Afro-Carribean religion is a smoking descarga that spotlights Martinez’s piano tumbao, Ray Romero’s timbales, and an extended solo by Barretto. Hector Lavoe, by then famous for his collaborations with Willie Colón, and Panamanian vocalist Menique sing back up. Punctuated with wild laughter and sizzling piano, “El Diablo” is a Cuban number fueled by street-corner swagger.

The album downshifts to hot Latin ballroom speed with “Yo tengo un amor,” a bolero-cha cha chá written by Puerto Rican great Rafael Hernández, showcasing Webb’s flute and the band’s brass power. The party gets wilder with “La Familia,” the album’s most liberating dance track, guided by Allen’s vocal stylings. “La Orquesta,” written by Roberto Rodríguez, references New York’s mambo era. “Indestructible” is the album’s final track, the lyrics punctuated by a barrage of beats from Barretto’s pounding conga playing.

The album cover carries the song’s message home with a photo of the percussionist, bruised but not defeated, his open shirt revealing a Superman emblem underneath. The image, and the album’s title proved to be prophetic: Over the next three decades, until his death in 2006, Ray Barretto’s career as both one of the greatest conga players in history and one of the most respected Latin musicians in jazz over the next three decades was indestructible.

Order Ray Barretto’s Indestructible now.

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