Saturday, November 1, 2008

Puerto Rico's Great Combination

I've seen some great shows in Greensboro: Spanish Harlem Orchestra, the Afro-Cuban All Stars (where I danced, albeit briefly, in a front row clench with Pedrito Van Van).

Now tonight, El Gran Combo moves into view at Rumba D'Cache on W. Market St. (see calendar).

The band formed in 1962, as an off-shoot of the estimable Cortijo y su Combo, and is still going strong 46 years later with pianist Rafael Ithier at the helm. Known as "La Universidad de la Salsa," some of its 'graduates' include bongocero Roberto Roena and trumpeter Elias Lopez, who went on to work as band leaders in Puerto Rico, and sonero Andy Montañez and bolero singer Pellín Rodriguez. The band's current signature lead voices are Charlie Aponte, Jerry Rivas and Papo Rosario.

El Gran Combo rejected a signing offer from Motown in the early '70s to create its own label, Combo Records, a business decision that has put them in control of their own commercial and artistic brand. Their output has been voluminous, producing new albums, compilations and live recordings almost yearly for most of their career, and hits that are still widely played and recognized by salsa fans around the world. Evergreens such as "Un Verano en Nueva York," "Azuquita Pa'l Cafe" and "El Menu" resonate as markers of Puerto Rican identity--and for tonight's Halloween theme, there are hits like "La Muerte" and "Brujeria." More recently, their 2001 El Nuevo Milenio - El Mismo Sabor spawned the dancehall staple "Me Libere" and a tribute to the passing in 2000 of timbal king Tito Puente. Their last album was Arroz con Habichuela in 2006.

Here's a pre-1977 clip of the band from YouTube, featuring Andy Montañez at his height:

Three men sharing a microphone may be old school, but it captures the convivial force of the art form, the essence of salsa's stage presence. Nice dance moves, too; musicians, you can polish up your stage footwork with these fine fellows.

At the end of the clip, there's an Easter egg of La Sonora Ponceña, Puerto Rico's other iconic, long-running salsa band. You will catch a glimpse of Yolanda Rivera, one of the first ladies of salsa, and the great Luigi Texidor spinning a soneo. Seeing the two bands bookended is a great combination, indeed. Thanks to L.A. Times music critic and author Ernesto Lechner for suggesting this clip as essential viewing.

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