On the plus side for Triangle music fans, Nuyorican conguero Ray Barretto and New World Spirit took over the UNC gig. Hill Hall, now in its last season before renovation, has the acoustics of an elementary school lunchroom, which interfered with the audience's ability to commune with the artists on stage. Barretto, in jeans with his shirt generously unbuttoned, cracked a joke about the lack of air conditioning. But if the humidity was tropical, the musical program stuck close to Barretto's current prediliection for small ensemble jazz, skirting material from his decades as a seminal figure in the birth of New York salsa.
Although New World Spirit's roomy improvisations disenchant Barretto's dance music fans, they may not know that his jazz roots pre-date his salsa pedigree. Growing up in the Bronx he heard Duke Ellington on the radio, and as a teen it was Dizzy Gillespie's Afro-Cuban brand of bebop that inspired him to become a professional drummer. As a studio musician for numerous jazz artists of the 1940s, Barretto invented a new language for the conga. Before he played mambo with Tito Puente at the 1950s Palladium Ballroom, before he topped the 1960s crossover charts with "El Watusi," before he led salsa sessions on the now legendary 1970s Fania record label: Barretto taught the congas to "speak" jazz.
One gets the sense that Barretto lives in a world of pure sound, where generic distinctions like "salsa" and "jazz" matter only insofar as they affect his artistic freedom. It's no coincidence that Barretto left salsa in the late '80s and early '90s, right when its creative energy waned and commercial values began to change the way salsa was made. Though there is a recent trend back toward the aesthetic of the '60s and '70s, the descarga (live jam session), of which Barretto was an undisputed master, has been largely left to the domain of salsa's African-American primo--jazz.
New World Spirit started their Oct. 4 concert on an exploratory note with a vignette from Grofé's Grand Canyon Suite. The trapset doubled as timbales on some songs, adding abakúa rhythms and yoruba grooves into a heavily Afro-cubop atmosphere. While Eddie Palmieri has often said that he plays piano like a frustrated percussionist, Barretto's drum sounds rival melodic instruments for their range of colors and dynamics. The set ended with a mind-blowing conga climax in "Brother Ray." For one unbelievable moment, Barretto moved so quickly over the drumheads that he appeared to the naked eye to be hovering, hummingbird-like, over all four at once.
The 73-year-old's solos thinned noticably in the second set, and he even sat out a song or two. It was a toss-up whether the man known for his "manos duras" (hard hands) was tired, or if he was just more into hearing his cats jam. Of the sextet's other members, John Bailey took home the most audience acclaim for his tremendously precise yet soulful trumpet work. A close second was Adam Kolker's agile saxophone. There is no way to fake the emotional sustain on a bolero, which is where bassist Greg August, drummer Vince Cherico and pianist Hector Martignon had a chance to shine. The single encore, a hastier version of the slowcooking fusion-cha-cha "Cocinando," left the crowd hungry, but Barretto proved that he still commands the drummer's divine power to blast open ritual time.The end of an institution
Just a month after the closing of El Chilango, the Carrboro eatery that once hosted bicultural events from language classes to dance parties, we have also learned of the retirement of Felix J. Padilla Sr. as co-owner and operator of Salsa Carolina Inc. A partner in the business for 11 years, Padilla managed the group's twice-weekly operations at a succession of venues around Raleigh and Chapel Hill. His departure leaves the future of the Triangle's oldest continuously operating Latin dance organization in doubt.
Padilla and wife Tati, Puertoricans by birth, met in New York City and moved to Florida with IBM before relocating to the Triangle 11 years ago. "I thought I died!" Padilla recalls of their first day in RTP, at a time before the area had much to offer in the way of Hispanic culture. "I turned on the radio and there were no Latin radio stations. Then I heard Tito Puente, and I said, 'Turn it up!' It was Ricardo [Granillo, of WSHA]." Granillo, Raleigh's first Latin DJ and a musician originally from the Bay Area, directed Padilla and his family to Salsa Carolina, which then hosted gatherings at Chapel Hill's Omni Hotel. There they danced, met co-owner Jim Spier, "and we got started from there."
"At first we had 10 customers," Padilla reminisces. "Of those, four were Anglo-American, and six were Latino. If you look at the mix today, it will be 200 people, but it's the same percentage," he says, proud of the way Salsa Carolina has brought the local communities together. The nicest part of the experience was "creating an atmosphere," Padilla says, "making people feel like family," a pattern that inspired fierce customer loyalty despite frequent moves to new locations over the years.
"It's very draining," Padilla says about the week-to-week, year-after-year operations he and family members have managed for over a decade, but he remains optimistic about retiring. Among the reasons to move on, he cites his day job as an accounting professor at St. Augustine's College, a grandchild he loves to spend time with, and a desire to kick back and travel.
"It'll be OK," he consoles customers who are sorry to see him go. "It's different now. Now there are a lot of of Latin clubs." With a cheerful gleam he adds, "Now I can go out and dance!" On behalf of all the many, many salseros who got their start, or found a home, with Salsa Carolina over the years, this columnist passes on a bendición to the Padilla family for all they've given the salsa community. While that can't be measured, it certainly will be missed.
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