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Golden But Not An Oldie, A Band's 40th Birthday Party As Salsa Festival

Golden But Not An Oldie, A Salsa Band Turns 40


September 5, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

Puerto Rico's best-known salsa orchestra, El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, once decided to try something totally new. The group's members were seeking a crossover sound as they prepared for a European tour, so they combined traditional Puerto Rican beats with interlopers like calypso and called their album "Latin Up."

"It was a disaster," said Rafael Ithier, the group's musical director, pianist and main arranger. "We didn't sell anything. The sound didn't have our `feeling,' and people didn't want it."

The lesson was not lost on Mr. Ithier and the 12 other members of El Gran Combo, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary and will bring its "feeling" to Madison Square Garden Saturday at a concert also featuring salsa headliners like the singers Andy Montañez and Gilberto Santa Rosa.

Throughout the decades, the orchestra has also tried the boogaloo, tangos and boleros, even romantic salsa and Cuban timba, but without straying too far from its trademark: a mix of big-band orchestral sounds, strong percussion and rhythmic Puerto Rican traditions like bomba and plena.

The approach has worked. Unlike, say, the Rolling Stones, who no longer have Top 10 hits, El Gran Combo has managed to retain a presence on the Latin charts through its own ups and downs and to perform and tour throughout the year. One of its most popular older hits, "La Fiesta de Pilito" ("Pilito's Party"), a Christmas party song, sells each holiday as if it were a new release, some record store owners say, and in markets like Miami, this and other El Gran Combo oldies are heard on the radio year round.

The group's recent album "New Millennium – The Same Flavor" (Combo Records) has received two Latin Grammy Award nominations this year (the Latin award ceremony is to be broadcast Sept. 18 on CBS), and its latest album, a 40th-anniversary CD that is the group's first live recording, was selling briskly in New York before a legal fight between two record companies stopped its distribution. (In a federal lawsuit, the owners of Combo Records, an independent New Jersey label, have accused BMG Music of releasing the anniversary CD without first securing a licensing agreement for the inclusion of certain songs. The two sides are conducting settlement negotiations.)

El Gran Combo, which has recorded more than 60 albums and sent singers and instrumentalists on to successful solo careers, has undoubtedly benefited from a peculiarity of the salsa market: the music crosses age groups, with people in their 50's and 60's often dancing alongside those in their 20's in salsa clubs. For older orchestras like this one, whose members range in age from the late 30's to the mid-70's, that has meant being constantly rediscovered by new generations who often grew up listening to them because their parents were fans.

At Manhattan nightclubs like Nell's on West 14th Street and Babalú on West 44th Street, Elvira Dominguez, 33, a D.J., plays El Gran Combo and older salsa throughout the night, shunning newer acts as bland and formulaic – "salsa monga" or limp salsa, some fans call it – and sticking with what traditionalists call "classic salsa."

"Their music is for dancers," she said of the members of El Gran Combo. "They are top musicians – all of them – and their singers are among the best. They're so tight."

At Casa Latina Music Shop in East Harlem, which has been owned by the same family for as long as El Gran Combo has existed, the owner, Vicente Barreiro, said the band had sold well consistently, even past its heyday in the 60's and 70's, because its "own style is music you can swing to."

"As soon as you listen to them," he added, "you know it's El Gran Combo."

But like any other musical genre, salsa has been susceptible to fads, and El Gran Combo faced rocky times with the rise in popularity of merengue in the 1980's and of romantic and erotic salsa by young, good-looking men singing of bedrooms and heartache in the 1990's. Mr. Ithier said his band survived by clinging to simple messages conveyed by festive, often humorous lyrics about daily life (one song, "Maldito Callo" or "Damned Corn," even has a corn as its theme) and because it remained accessible to its public. The group, which resists star treatment, regularly plays in town plazas in Puerto Rico and in stadiums, clubs and hotels throughout the world.

"This is music for the masses," Mr. Ithier said. "We're not trying to complicate anybody's mind. That simplicity speaks to people."

But although it's a crowd-pleaser, some people complain that El Gran Combo can sound repetitive in its concerts, rehashing the same feel-good old hits, and that it has been less innovative than comparable groups. La Sonora Ponceña, another Puerto Rican salsa orchestra that is even older, has experimented with complex arrangements that integrate jazz, classical music and other rhythms with salsa.

"I'd like to see them take some risks and try to break out of the traditional mold and not try to think of what they can do to please us," said Isaac Altman, a Miami dancer who runs the World Salsa Federation, which holds salsa dance championships. "They've got the talent and the voice to set the pace for what salsa music will be 10 years from now."

But the group has preferred to avoid the cutting edge, retaining its well-oiled sound, synchronized dance movements and highly disciplined organization. Only two of its original members remain – Mr. Ithier, 76, and the saxophone player Eddie Pérez, 67 – and it has suffered major defections over the years, most notably Mr. Montañez and the singer Pellín Rodríguez. Still, Mr. Ithier credits El Gran Combo's egalitarian structure – its members divide earnings equally, and every musician and singer also has administrative duties – for enabling it to survive as one of a handful of salsa orchestras.

El Gran Combo itself emerged from the break-up of another legendary Puerto Rican group, Cortijo y su Combo, the first to incorporate the bomba and plena rhythms of Puerto Rican blacks into popular music. Mr. Ithier and six other Cortijo musicians formed El Gran Combo in 1962 – its first LP was released two days before President John F. Kennedy's assassination – and added "de Puerto Rico" to its name as the members were anointed by government officials and fans as cultural ambassadors and island symbols.

Fellow musicians respect the group members for their business savvy. "They've developed a chain of promoters around the globe and kept them to themselves," said Larry Harlow, the New York Latin jazz pianist, who dropped by a news conference yesterday to say hello to the musicians as they announced details of their Saturday concert.

In Puerto Rican centers like New York City, where El Gran Combo has played salsa palaces like the Palladium and large arenas like Yankee Stadium, the group has nurtured nostalgia. While New York salsa institutions like Willie Colón and Rubén Blades have sung about social conditions and life and death in the barrio, El Gran Combo's themes have revolved around love, Puerto Rican folklore and lifestyle, and eating and drinking at parties.

"El Gran Combo is fun and funny," said Juan Flores, a sociologist and author of "From Bomba to Hip-Hop" ( Columbia University Press, 2000). "People know what to expect and they love it."

Lovers of the orchestra's music say its greatest appeal to those living away from the island is that it reminds them of what is authentically Puerto Rican.

"El Gran Combo brings us what one feels here in the heart," said José Seda, 48, who was buying CD's at Casa Latina last weekend.

Another customer, Edward Crespo, 46, a New York native born to Puerto Rican parents, added: "Whenever you hear El Gran Combo, the rhythm gets into your veins and you got to dance.

"There's two things you have to do: dance and eat."


A Band's 40th Birthday Party As Salsa Festival


September 10, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 

El Gran Combo, a Puerto Rican dynastic institution that has become synonymous with classic salsa, likes to recognize its own milestones. It has put out albums and produced concerts to mark its 20th and 30th anniversaries; this year the band wraps up its fourth decade, and on Saturday night it put on a retrospective at Madison Square Garden that didn't skimp on either generosity or self-admiration, ending with confetti, tailored Puerto Rican-flag uniforms, and a song about the band turning 40.


There are obvious and funny parallels between El Gran Combo and the Rolling Stones: they both played their first gigs within two months in 1962; they have had hits even in later incarnations; their sound has determined the sound of middle-of-the-road radio playlists; they're both absorbing troupers' glory on the road right now. But unlike the Stones, El Gran Combo does not indulge rakish sloppiness.

This dance orchestra has 10 musicians, 3 singers up front, and 2 more for backup. And, again unlike the Stones, the band has always left musical and social provocations to others: it has kept a strong working-class fan base, sticking to its love songs, its nostalgia, its basic pleasures.

The sound of El Gran Combo has not diminished over time, even with significant personnel changes: it still performs with precise, smashing force. Its core rhythmic unit – with three percussionists, a bass player and the keyboardist who arranges the music, Rafael Ithier – swung hard and spaciously, and occasionally with wild complexity. (Mr. Ithier is one of two original members; the other is the alto saxophonist Eddie Perez.)

This birthday party was rehearsed down to the second. The Madison Square Garden show – which happened to be the 27th annual New York salsa festival, produced by Ralph Mercado, the music's long-running promoter – had a set list that closely resembled the band's "40 Aniversario En Vivo" album, recorded live in Puerto Rico this year. About half of the three-hour show was given over to medleys, with old hits joined seamlessly; a good portion featured guest singers, two of whom were also featured on the album.

Songs associated with former members of the band were accompanied by black-and-white video montages of the group in the old days; alongside the band's great 1970's hit "Un Verano en Nueva York" there was a film of Nuyorican joys: domino-playing, rumba circles, sellers of piraguas (shaved-ice cones with tropical fruit syrup), baseball games.

Certain eras of the band were represented in solid blocks of song, the funniest of which being their swinging-60's boogaloo moment. The band played "Aquarius" and "Let the Sun Shine In" – yes, from "Hair" – and Andy Montañez who sang with the band until 1977, emerged with an Afro wig and bell-bottoms, belting out the lines in his high, wide vibrato. Then, all kidding aside, the band played a bewitching boogaloo, accenting upbeats and transcending the subgenre's rhythmic clichés.

Though El Gran Combo's own lead singers, Charlie Aponte and Jerry Rivas, sang brilliantly, creating an impeccable choreography line with the chorus singer Papo Rosario, Mr. Montañez nearly overshadowed them with his extraordinary belting. Gilberto Santa Rosa, one of the greatest improvising singers in salsa, was a guest as well, leading the band in a medley including the 1968 hit "Maldito Callo." But a face-off of improvisation – one could imagine Mr. Santa Rosa against Mr. Rivas, or against Mr. Montañez – was not to be.

Instead, something simpler and more surprising happened: very near the end of the marathon concert the singer Andres Jimenez strolled out, wearing a white fedora, aligning the band with Puerto Rico's rural guajiro music; very slowly he sang "La Loma de Tamarindo," a boyhood reverie, in a high, mournful voice. In an evening of frantic showmanship, it was a moment of Zen-like calm.

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