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Los Angeles Times

Salsa Is Forever

By Agustin Gurza

September 27, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved. 

Like marriages, salsa bands love to celebrate anniversaries.

In this genre, hitting silver doesn't signify that a band sold so many units. It means they've been together for 25 years. That's not an uncommon milestone for groups from Cuba and Puerto Rico, where bands become institutions that even outlive their founders, batons passed from father to son.

But few groups have aged with as much grace and vitality as El Gran Combo, the beloved dance band founded 40 years ago by Rafael Ithier, its pianist, arranger and benevolent director. The group, which is scheduled to perform Sunday at Fort Lauderdale's Broward Center, is salsa's Rolling Stones, but with a current hit.

That's the thing about this band: People don't get tired of it. Its style hasn't changed much, but somehow it never sounds stale. You can call it a formula: Strong vocals, flashy showmanship, infectious rhythms and layered, interlacing horn lines. El Gran Combo has that common touch, with songs that often reflect everyday Latino life with authenticity, affection and a sense of humor.

How can people get tired of having fun?

"I try to make music that is digestible, something people can easily assimilate," the gravel-voiced Ithier says during a phone interview in Spanish from Puerto Rico. "If you make things too complicated, well, the public won't understand it. That's why we've remained a favorite of the masses."

Actually, it's not as simple as that. El Gran Combo has remained a favorite of critics too. That's quite an accomplishment in an art form that prizes innovation as well as tradition. The band has managed to remain relevant while remaining true to its roots.

As a pianist, the 75-year-old Ithier is not experimental like Eddie Palmieri or jazzy like Papo Lucca of the Sonora Poncena, another veteran outfit from Puerto Rico. He has a light, tinkling touch, more adornment than showpiece. He rarely takes solos, but without his jaunty keyboard as a cornerstone, there would be no Gran Combo.

The subtle intricacy of his playing shines clearly on the band's latest album, Aniversario 40 en Vivo, a live recording of its 40th-anniversary concert on April 27 in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. The band sounds tighter and punchier than ever on the record, which faithfully captures the spontaneity of its performances. The singers offer new, improvised verses and Ithier's fanciful piano laces the breaks with cascades of notes.

But hurry if you want the double CD, which is being recalled from stores by BMG US Latin amid a legal dispute over publishing rights with Cartagena Publishing, whose owners have worked with the group for decades.

El Gran Combo has weathered challenges from the start.

The term "salsa" didn't even exist in 1962 when the group started. President Kennedy was still in the White House and the world was headed toward a potential nuclear confrontation over Cuba, the musical powerhouse of the Caribbean. The Cold War would eventually shift the musical balance of power toward Cuba's tiny Antillean cousin, Puerto Rico.

Ithier had been a member of the seminal Puerto Rican group led by Rafael Cortijo, which also yielded the acclaimed bands of percussionist Roberto Roena and singer Ismael Rivera. The nucleus of El Gran Combo included Ithier and half a dozen fellow Cortijo defectors. Today, only Ithier and sax player Eddie "La Bala" Perez remain from the founding group.

In its early years, the young band faced animosity from Cortijo loyalists who considered them musical traitors, Ithier recalls. They struggled to gain a foothold during the '60s, dabbling in the boogaloo craze.

The band's identity and popularity didn't jell until the 1971 release of the landmark De Punta a Punta (From One End to the Other). It was the group's first album on its own label, EGC, and it remains a classic of the Puerto Rican school of salsa.

It featured the vocals of Andy Montanez and Pellin Rodriguez, whose distinctive timbres would help forge the band's style. For years, most fans remembered the band by its charismatic frontmen. When they eventually left for solo careers, it was like a traumatic divorce.

The departure of Montanez was particularly painful. The two were compadres, Ithier having been godfather to his singer's oldest daughter. Not to mention that El Gran Combo owed its distinctive sound largely to Montanez's incredibly powerful and sonorous vocals.

Yet, it was Montanez's career that floundered. El Gran Combo kept right on going.

Montanez -- who makes a guest appearance on the live album with a medley of his old hits -- was replaced by Jerry Rivas, one of salsa's most underrated soneros, or improvisational singers.

Ever since, Rivas has shared vocal duties with Charlie Aponte, who replaced Pellin Rodriguez in 1973 and went on to sing lead on some of the group's biggest hits, such as Brujeria (Witchcraft) and Telefono.

Overall, the '90s were not the band's best decade. But while its recent albums have been uneven, lacking in focus and spirit at times, the hits kept coming.

Last year's studio album, Nuevo Milenio -- El Mismo Sabor (New Millennium, Same Taste), yielded the infectious Me Libere (I Freed Myself), a satirical skewering of macho womanizers who feel like victims of all their jealous and demanding lovers.

Ithier says he didn't think much of the song, having to be convinced by his band to include it. He now happily admits he was wrong.

Resembling a dapper Duke Ellington, the avuncular Ithier has run his outfit with discipline and democracy. No drugs or flakiness allowed, but everybody has a voice.

"We're all friends here," says Ithier, whose marriage predates the formation of his band by three years.

"Somebody has to have the last word, but nobody feels superior to anybody else."

In Spanish, he speaks the words melodically: "Nadie se cree mejor que nadie."

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