Ray Mantilla, a percussionist and bandleader who led a prolific jazz career for more than half a century, died on Saturday, at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. He was 85.

The cause was complications of lymphoma, said his brother, Kermit Mantilla, who was at his bedside when he passed.

Mantilla played on hundreds of recordings, including some that have become important parts of jazz history, like Max Roach’s M’Boom, Herbie Mann’s Flute, Brass, Vibes and Percussion and Charles Mingus’s Cumbia & Jazz Fusion. He was one of the three most recorded conga players in the history of jazz; he held that distinction with Ray Barretto and Cándido Camero.

Like Cándido, one of his heroes, Mantilla championed the use of multiple congas, employing up to four drums at times, each tuned to a specific pitch. Also like Cándido, he championed the performance of solo pieces on congas.

But Mantilla was, as he liked to put it, the complete percussionist — skilled not only on congas but also a range of other instruments. “I loved the way Ray played charanga-style timbales,” Barretto once said. “Remember, you have only one bell to keep time accompanying the flute and violins, and you have to play rock-solid time with swing.”

Mantilla described his own music as “Latin Jazz with authentic Latino rhythms.” He released nine albums as a leader. His first was Mantilla, in 1978, and his most recent was High Voltage, almost 40 years later. He recorded a follow-up, Rebirth, scheduled for release this year on Savant Records.

“It’s a combination of the familiar and the eclectic,” said longtime Mantilla associate Mike Freeman, who plays vibraphone on that album. The title, Rebirth, he explained, “is a reference to Ray surviving cancer two years ago.”

Raymond Mantilla as a boy with his parents, Ramona Maldonado and Carlos Mantilla Ghilardi.
CREDIT COURTESY OF KERMIT MANTILLA

Raymond Mantilla was born in St. Francis Hospital in the South Bronx on June 22, 1934. His father, Carlos Mantilla Ghilardi, was an architect and engineer who was recruited to work on the building of the George Washington Bridge. He then began working for the U.S. Intelligence Services in a branch in Peru, just before the United States’ entry into World War II. Ray’s mother, Ramona Maldonado, hailed from the city of Vega Baja in Puerto Rico, and owned and operated a bodega in the South Bronx.

Ray’s childhood friends included some of the major forces in the Afro-Cuban music scene that became redefined by New York’s City’s Puerto Rican community into what we know as salsa. Among them were timbalero Orlando Marin, percussionist Manny Oquendo, pianist Eddie Palmieri, flutist and percussionist Johnny Pacheco, and percussionist Benny Bonilla.

Bonilla, who played timbales on the seminal Latin Boogaloo hit “I Like It Like That,” met Mantilla at age 15. “He and I would practice our conga beats to 78 vinyl records,” he said. “Ray stressed a steady and good left hand.”

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