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El Gran Combo Still Swings With Authority

BY Ed Morales

19 December 2004
Copyright © 2004 Newsday. All rights reserved.

With all the talk of salsa's imminent demise, and the literal dying off of the music's founding figures, the members of Puerto Rico's El Gran Combo merely shrug their collective shoulders and keep making records.

They've been making albums for 42 years and continue to enjoy an extremely loyal fan base from New York to Buenos Aires, Paris to Tokyo. To publicize their new Sony BMG album, "Aquí Estamos y...¡De Verdad!" (Here We Are...for Real!)," earlier this month, they held a press conference at Sirius Satellite Radio headquarters in Manhattan.

"What do you think of the growing phenomenon of reggaetón?" asked one reporter with breathless urgency. "I don't think it's affected us," replied Gran Combo leader Rafael Ithier, bemused, unmoved.

"Is salsa on the decline?" asked another reporter, repeating a familiar theme, the one-note chorus that has gripped Latin showbiz reporting for months on end.

"I came up during a time when dance orchestra ruled," said vocalist Charlie Aponte. "We would play merengue, mambo, even paso doble. I think it hurts the music to even consider salsa as a separate term. If this album works, maybe Sony will become more interested in recording great dance orchestras."

"Salsa has lost so many of its leading lights," Ithier chimed in. "Today, the music is much less danceable than it used to be. And when it comes to venues, outside of the Copa there's no place left in New York to play anymore."

Of course, Ithier was really referring to the dearth of venues that can afford to book the 13-member El Gran Combo, and we all know that while the number is diminishing, there are still plenty of places to get your dancing legs off to a live band. But he was clearly relieved when, finally, in an attempt at comic relief, one writer asked, "So how are the elections going in Puerto Rico?" referring to the island's month-long crisis over its gubernatorial election.

Judging from its latest release, El Gran Combo won't be removed from its position as chief executive of salsa anytime soon. With Ithier's trademark musical direction unflagging, the band continues to swing with an authority that seems as inevitable as the sting of the tropical sun. The unique triple-vocal attack of Aponte, Jerry Rivas and Papo Rosario shines when they take solos, as well as when they form salsa's most ebullient chorus.

The secret of El Gran Combo's success is not only the perfection of a Latin dance orchestra's indefatigable verse-chorus-improvisational break formula - it's the generosity of spirit, the accessibility and the engaging nature. Songs such as "Mi Gorda Bonita," which extols the virtues of large ladies, and "El Matrimonio," a heart-to-heart about the realities of marriage, have the feel of spending the weekend with family. Which is why "Aquí Estamos y...De Verdad!" serves as such a perfect soundtrack for the holiday season.

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