Salsa Down the Decades: El Gran Combo


El Gran Combo Celebrates Alliances and Traditions

The great Puerto Rican salsa orchestra El Gran Combo has been around for 50 years, as the projected visuals of its current stage show tell you, or 51, as history tells you. Some of its songs have been in Spanish-speaking consciousness for so long that they’re bigger than the band, or bigger than what the band is now.  And so El Gran Combo has a duty toward pageantry.

In a concert of more than two hours at Radio City Music Hall on Sunday night, it sometimes resembled a backup band: certainly for the invited guest singers, who made the room explode on cue, each one representing various Latin dance-band eras of the last half-century, but also for its own historical relevance. Since the death of the saxophonist Eddie Perez in August, El Gran Combo now has one remaining original member: Rafael Ithier, the pianist and longtime bandleader, who now mostly conducts and acts as a genial M.C., joking with a voice like a dragged muffler. (He sat down to play only one number, the stately jibaro song “La Loma del Tamarindo.”)

The band’s got memories to serve, old alliances and traditions to celebrate; slide shows ran behind the music, and the concert stopped for a lengthy interlude so that the concert’s promoter, Felix Cabrera, as well as the New York Latin-music radio hosts Polito Vega and Paco Navarro, could tell stories about El Gran Combo’s history with Ralph Mercado, the prominent New York salsa promoter who died four years ago.

This isn’t to diminish the current group. The singers Jerry Rivas, Charlie Aponte and Papo Rosario — who joined the band between 1973 and 1980 — are all sturdily voiced; the pianist Willie Sotelo, who took over several years ago as musical director, is a vamping force and an elegant improviser. When the bassist Freddy Rivera broke out of his economical patterns to solo on “Brujeria,” he pulled out deep, deliberate sounds. But the group seemed to need or even want outside sparks, and used them strategically.

Among those sparks was Ismael Miranda, one of the voices from the high period of the Fania All Stars — and therefore notionally representing the early ’70s — who joined on “Ojos Chinos.” His strong, clean tenor moved the energy in the right direction, despite the corny dance routines the band’s singers still use for the song’s  Asian-esque, pentatonic-scale riff. José Alberto, El Canario, the late-’70s salsa star, sang an old dance-craze number, “Jala Jala.” Tito Nieves — the ’80s — put some roughness on “Julia,” and La India, voice of the post-Latin Freestyle ’90s, tore into a more recent El Gran Combo song, “Que Me Lo Den En Vida,” singing powerfully, her improvisations an almost disruptive force The band was gauging the audience: every time cheers rose, the music grew muscles.

An unannounced surprise appeared in the middle, in the person of a limber old man in a suit and a black hat with a wide ribbon. It was the Dominican singer Joseito Mateo, now 93, and technically El Gran Combo’s first vocalist: in 1962, the band, just formed, backed him on the album “Menéame los Mangos.” He sang a track from that record, the merengue “Con un Marinero,” and the crowd — middle-aged listeners, many of them with their parents or grandparents — knew exactly what was going on. His voice has lost a lot of definition; at the song’s peak, he was essentially yelling with style, as he danced and beamed. But the blast of magnetism was extraordinary, drawing the band’s singers around in him a circle, rousing the house.

–Courtesy of The New York Times

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