I was sixteen years old when I first played with a band. I was a student at St. Vincent’s High School, then located on 14th Street, south of Michigan only two short blocks from the train station. I loved to dance and was really into our school’s extracurricular activities like attending the basketball games and the occasional dance. This night the dance was held at the Gaelic League on Michigan not far from the school. The band featured the younger members of Los Barrios and lo and behold! There was a set of congas on stage. I got up enough nerve to approach the leader of this youthful version of Los Barrios. He was the drummer Ruben Barrios and I asked if I could sit in. He invited me up and I did well. That same night l was invited to join their group. That was to start a lifelong friendship with not only Ruben but other members of the family group. Within the year that included older brother Jimmie Barrios when he returned from Korea. Jimmie and I would become “compadres”. I would form relationships with brothers David, Rickey and Javier and Reno Paloma, the band’s bassist, who though not one of the brothers nonetheless was part of that extended familia. Javier would become a long-time member of my own Salsa and Latin Jazz band, La Inspiracion decades later.
Soon after that fateful encounter at the Gaelic League Ruben and I decided to form a youth group called Inca which would include my sister at the ripe old age of fourteen (14) as the lead singer and front person. Ruben at age 17 would serve as the leader and trap drummer with brother David who was all of 12 years old, on guitar and piano, and completing the group on bass Reno, at age 16. For a little over a year Inca would go on to be a favorite not only in southwest Detroit (back then we use to just simply call our neighborhood “El Barrio”) but also throughout the metro Detroit area. We were quite versatile playing anything from Santana cover tunes, Rock and Roll, salsa, Mexican/Tejano, Soul and a little bit of Latin jazz. That versatile repertoire was made possible because of the musical guidance of the Barrio clan patriarch, Catarino “Pa” Barrios.
I am motivated to write this column because for many of my generation growing up in Southwest Detroit, we saw the Barrios collectively and later on as individual musicians as a remarkable musical dynasty that would impact us for decades to follow. The “Barrios” flavor was unmistakable! I remember in their heyday you could catch Inca and the Barrios playing everything from Mexican and/or Puerto Rican dances, church festivals, African American high school dances, Polish weddings, the BobLo boat and so on.
“Pa” Barrios was born in Detroit while the family’s matriarch Rosa, was born in Monterey Mexico. Pa Barrios had a wide range of musical tastes and passed it along to his sons. So it was not uncommon to listen to the likes of big bands like Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Perry Como, Perez Prado, Tito Puente and other mambo greats along with Frank Sinatra playing on their home record player. I remember being introduced to Tejano style big band music done by the likes of Little Joe and Sonny & the Sunliners and Chicano as well as Mexican American boogie woogie of the 40’s and 50’s. Catarino was taught music by his father whom he was named after. According to Ruben he and his uncles played together during the 40’s and the 50’s and as individual musicians with a number of area groups. Though once Pa’s sons were of age, he turned his focus on their musical growth.
In regards to Inca, that musical configuration only lasted about a year. I would say it was due primarily to our youthfulness. Yet we continued playing as a subgroup within the Barrios incorporating our repertoire to that expanded version of the family band. As other members of the Barrios either returned from military service like Jimmie or got older such as Rickie and Javier they in turn joined the family band. Without exception they influenced the Detroit music scene for decades. Thus, I hope to humbly capture that chapter of our community’s musical history and heritage that sadly many young people within our neighborhood are not aware of. I reached out recently to Ruben Barrios to talk about his family’s legacy. It was quite an engaging conversation which bought back many fond memories.
Ruben recounted that as the second oldest of the siblings he started playing music at five. His father bought him a set of bongos and encouraged him to learn tempos to different rhythms such as mambo, cha cha and big band. Ruben moved from bongos to trap drums at about six or seven years old and by eight years old was “getting paid” to perform with area bands.
He continued saying though he does not read music his musical training came as a result of his father’s coaching and encouragement. He encouraged his sons to listen to all kinds of music. As Ruben noted “It was important for us to pick up key patterns in any musical genre”. At a young age his father would have Ruben repeatedly listen to recordings and at critical junctures in the songs would ask him to reflect on what he had heard. Further, Pa would work with his sons in helping them transition from cha cha to mambo to polka and other rhythms at a second’s notice within one song. “To think for ourselves” when playing music. He also encouraged them to play rock and roll, even though comparatively speaking there are less “progressions” in that style. Continuing, Ruben reminisced how the family would gather in front of the television on a weekly basis to watch the Lawrence Welk variety show so as to dissect the musicians’ styles and approaches. They would also listen to TV jingles while Pa would challenge them to quickly repeat them. The end result was that it emboldened them to move forward in their artistic growth. Versatility in musicianship and being well rounded in musical tastes was the household expectation. The Barrios would go on to play weddings and other community events. Pa would often “loan out” individual family members to area groups, even including country and western bands. They often played at church organized events and festivals never “charging a penny” because they saw that as part of their community duty.
During his early teens Ruben played with many musicians such as legends like Panchito and Zeffi Puente. Panchito, a well-known percussionist and trumpeter player, also was the Detroit Public Schools first Mexican American school principal. In his early years he played with the likes of Stan Kenton and even Tito Puente. Saxophonist Zeffi Puente specialized in waltzes, boleros, cha, cha, chas. Ruben also played jazz with Bob Rodriguez’s trio Bob.
The family band played less once his older brother Jimmie was drafted in the army and was stationed in Korea. It was hard to find a replacement for Jimmie who in addition to playing the organ was the “front person”. The other brothers were still quite young. So when they played, it was usually as individuals with other groups during Jimmie’s absence.
Then the idea for Inca was born. My sister Lila joined as lead singer and front person. David joined on guitar and as singer. Reno Paloma, whom Ruben had met at St. Vincent’s high school, joined on bass. I rounded off the group’s instrumentation on congas. As mentioned above though highly popular and versatile, Inca would dissolve after about a year of playing but would nonetheless continue to play their repertoire as part of the Barrios family band.
When Jimmie returned from Korea, he once again served as the “front man” and played organ/keyboards while singing. A few years later he would move on from the band and concentrate his efforts on being a DJ. In fact, Jimmie was one of the pioneer DJ’s in Southwest Detroit. David, who played bass, guitar, and piano/keyboards as well as sing, would become well known as a key sideman for a number of area bands including Puerto Rican salsa bands in which he played piano. Ricky was a drummer sitting in with different bands. After moving to Texas, he would play with a number of bands there including a number of jazz groups. He too switched over to being a DJ. Both he and Jimmie would go to work on cruise ships honing their craft. Javier played bongos, congas and timbales with a number of Salsa, Latin jazz and jazz bands. This included a long tenure with my own band La Inspiracion. On occasion he would play with Aretha Franklin. Reno went on to play bass with a number of area bands. Javier, Jimmie and Rickey are now deceased.
As time passed Ruben would go on to play bass eight years with Rodrigo Martinez & Nuevo Laredo at El Chapparal. Rodrigo was formerly with the famed band Los Norteños. Ruben credits the length of his tenure with Rodrigo in that he was a showman in addition to playing the bass. He also played with Benny Cruz, Latin Counts, Mando Cane, Moose and the Sharks. JT and the Unknowns. JT and the Unknowns were known for playing 50’s and 60’s music.
When asked why he is not playing anymore he noted he enjoys traveling throughout the country now that he is retired. In looking back on his career, he stated “It has been a good ride, crazy at times, but definitely I loved that period. It was fun.” He continued “The name of the game was to have fun and get paid.”
It is not an overstatement to say that for my generation of Latinos growing up in Detroit the Barrios were quite influential and constituted a true musical dynasty. This is true not only because of their musicianship but even more importantly their humility and love of life and how much they gave to the community.