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'Liber' Salseros' 40 Rhythmic Years

By Ed Morales

September 1, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Newsday Inc. All rights reserved.

If you listened to tropical-music radio or frequented salsa clubs last winter, there was one song that seemed to drown out all the others: "Me Liber" by El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico. It has an old- school feel when it comes to its big-band sound and hard swing arrangements, while its subject matter - the perils single men face on the dating scene - jibes with the current style, salsa romantica or salsa sensual. "I don't want any more complications/That's why I liberated myself!" shouts the chorus, as lead singer Jerry Rivas improvises. "I'm sorry, goodbye," he intones in English, in a kind of parody of La Lupe's "Se Acab," a '70s Latina revenge ballad.

"Me Liber" appeared on last year's "Nuevo Milenio - El Mismo Sabor" (Combo Records), the most recent release by Gran Combo. The song's breakneck pacing and catchy choruses made it such a big hit that even non-Spanish speakers began approaching me, asking, "Who does that song, 'May Libaray?' Is it Marc Anthony?"

The song's enormous appeal is a testament to the immense popularity and staying power of Gran Combo, whose members are celebrating the combo's 40th anniversary with a special concert at Madison Square Garden (212-307-7171) next Saturday.

"'Me Liber' has been a bigger hit than we would have imagined," said Rafael Ithier, the 76-year-old patriarch of the 13-piece orchestra. "We've been on tour in Germany, Spain and France - we just got back from Colombia - and it's a song that seems to have struck a nerve. It penetrates." A self-taught pianist, Ithier first made the scene in his native Puerto Rico playing with a group led by legendary salsa pioneers Rafael Cortijo and Ismael Rivera. A dispute within the group prompted Ithier to form El Gran Combo in 1962. Over the years, the band has released some 40 albums, many out of print now.

Gran Combo's continuing popularity is probably due to its ability to pay tribute to the old, Afro-Cuban-style dance orchestrations, while still managing to appeal to younger audiences. The players seem to have fulfilled Cortijo's desire to produce music that is traditional, avant-garde and popular at the same time. Unlike many New York-based salseros, who openly complain about the commercialization of salsa, Ithier feels the music has evolved, and it is important to take part in that process.

"We can't deny that there's been a change in the music," said Ithier. "We feel we've been part of this evolution, which began when the communication lines with Cuba were shut off and the Fania era started. There are people who complain about the new salsa ; it doesn't have the popularity it did 10 years ago. Still, there has been a contribution from the young guys, who are arranging and making the music happen."

In fact, Ithier believes there has been a reaction from mainstream salsa producers to the chorus of hard-core fans who would like the music to stress musicianship and rhythmic intensity.

"There are pros and cons," says Ithier. Maybe in the past the produ cers took away "a little flavor from the old tropical, Afro- Cuban traditional music," he says. "But you can't deny [the current salsa romantica] is well-made, and I think they've gotten better from a theoretical point of view. They've become aware that therhythmic part is very important and have improved the sound a lot."

The Garden show will feature what Ithier calls "the musical history of El Gran Combo presented in its various eras." Confirmed guest stars are singers Gilberto Santa Rosa, ex-Gran Combo vocalist Andy Montaez and the very popular singer Tito Rojas.

Despite the fact that Gran Combo (along with La Sonora Poncea) is one of Puerto Rico's great bands and represents the best of an island music scene that is sometimes overlooked by New Yorkers, the orchestra has had a strong following in the area. In the mid-'60s it recorded a bugaloo album (a quintessential New York salsa-soul style) and played the old circuit that often included dances in the Bronx.

It seems fitting Gran Combo will be in town at summer's end, because one of its biggest hits is "Un Verano en Nueva York." "If you want to have a good time/With song and elegance," the song says, "You just have to spend/A summer in New York."

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