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Conga giant Barretto dips into a little salsa

May 26, 2003|Ernesto Lechner | Special to The Times

Standing backstage on Friday night during the fifth annual West Coast Salsa Congress at the Hollywood Park Casino, 74-year-old Ray Barretto looked like a gentle, unassuming grandfather figure.

And yet, the Nuyorican percussionist was greeted with screams of delirious enthusiasm when he stepped onstage at 1:30 in the morning with his 11-piece band and launched into a spirited version of the raucous classic "Al Ver Sus Campos."

Anyone minimally familiar with salsa lore has seen video footage of Barretto from the '70s, playing congas with the Fania All Stars, his face distorted in a grimace of mystically tinged ecstasy. As the leader of his own band, Barretto was instrumental in cementing the sound of hard-core New York salsa -- an addictive fusion of Cuban beats and big band jazz informed by gritty R&B inflections.

For the last 12 years, Barretto has favored a Latin-jazz sextet over his salsa combo, which made this return to tropical territory even more exciting. Veteran vocalist Adalberto Santiago was at hand to perform a slew of nostalgic favorites, from "Quitate La Mascara" to "Alma Con Alma."

As a conga player, Barretto does not exhibit the virtuoso tendencies of later-generation percussionists such as Giovanni Hidalgo. He knows when to play, but more important, he knows when not to play.

On the percolating "Seguire Sin Sonar," for instance, he stayed mostly under the radar, leaving the bongo player's furious cowbell in charge of propelling the beat. When Barretto's solo finally arrived, its smoldering intensity created a feverish mood -- paving the way for a superlative three-way conversation between congas, timbales and bongos.

Much as Friday's performance was an exhilarating affair, there was a melancholy tinge to it. The most exciting artists in salsa today are veterans in their 60s and 70s. You can't help but wonder what the landscape of tropical music will look like when the old maestros are gone. Is there a new generation of salseros poised to replace them? Not really.

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