El Gran Combo



How do you top a history full of successes, profits and successful recordings? What do you do when your latest album sets the standard in the history of an orchestra considered a musical salsa institution in its country and in the entire world? What do you say when everything has already been said for more than 4 decades? Simple, return to the basics, to that which has given you an identity during all this time and you record without any pretense, but with the confidence that when you make something with your heart, the path of success remains open. This is what has just been done with Rafael Ithier and his Gran Combo de Puerto Rico.

After becoming one of the major tropical acts in their native country, the group had the opportunity to participate in a salsa festival at New York's Madison Square Garden in 1986. Grupo Niche's new lineup debuted in 1987 with "Tapando El Hueco," touring Europe for the first time in 1989. A year later, Puerto Rican singer Tito Gómez decided to leave the band, being replaced by Carlos Alberto Cardona from Colombia. During the '90s, Grupo Niche turned to romantic lyrics, leaving behind their traditional songs based on social issues.

With more than four decades of achievements and considered the most important musical institution in the evolution and consistency of tropical music, El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico is following in the footsteps of Salsa and tropical music starting its 5th decade with “Aqui Estamos Y…Verdad! their first CD for Sony BMG Music. If salsa is going to keep up with the evolution of music, the presence of El Gran Combo is indispensable at this time for the impact that it continues to have in tropical music.

After having celebrated 40 years of their unique brand with an unforgettable tour, the recording of a live double disc, they received their well-deserved first GRAMMY. El Gran Cambo returned to the scene with a CD where they keep the sound, the presence and the humility that characterizes them so much. It took more than two years in arriving, but it was worth it for its quality and the variety that Don Rafael Ithier gave to this album.

From the moment that Rafael Ithier decided to leave Cortijo and his combo to form El Gran Combo, the life of the master Ithier as well as tropical music was never the same. The combination of lead voices, beginning with Andy Montanez and Pellin Rodriguez, followed by Jerry Rivas and Charlie Aponte has been a constant in the tropical music picture. From their initial “Acangana” right up to today, El Gran Combo is known to maintain a unique style where everyday themes, humor, charm, love and musicality has been its trademark in salsa records for the ages. This same formula was followed in the showcase album, “Aqui Estamos Y…De Verdad!”

This exquisite album of El Gran Combo has the ingredients needed to satisfy the demands for many of today’s tropical music salseros. Their own Don Rafael Ithier was at the forefront of this album with Freddie Miranda. The arrangements were conducted by Tommy Villarini, as well as Don Rafa who produced three arrangements by himself.

“Aqui Estamos Y…De Verdad!” is a reaffirmation that El Gran Combo is still alive and kicking and hanging with a force, passion and new horizons on the scene. It is a testament that this musical institution is not resting on its laurels and their music still as honest, refreshing and vigorous as when they were first starting 42 years ago.

The album opens with a curious and suggestive piece “Mi Gorda Bonita” sung by Jerry Rivas and serves as the theme of the soap opera “Mi Gorda Bella”. With an introduction that mixes elements of rancheras and bolero, this is a tribute to the little fat girls with their love and their essence and their worth as a person and a human being. This piece was published as the first single on the disc and maintains the feeling that El Gran Combo has brought to compositions in the past, like “El Menu”, “El Boricua”, and “El Eliminacion de Los Feos”.

“El Matrimonio”, with Charlie Aponte at the lead, is a love song for two people who join their lives. In times when much of tropical music is inspired by seduction and the flesh, here the lyrics focus on enjoying what you have and how the everyday things can be beautiful and discovered as honest. “Amor Perfecto” is a catchy and danceable one where Jerry and Charlie join their voices together as in their best times.

“Me Dejo En El Aire” has the typical swing of El Gran Cambo de Puerto Rico and the lyrics are based on humor, satire and the frustration of feelings that grab your attention. “Pa’rriba” No Va” focuses on the differences that exist between two beings in love with each other but who can’t cross the bridges that separate them. “Para Querer Un Te Quiero” possesses that sound of the classic El Gran Combo of the 70’s and 80’s, but with lyrics much in touch with today.

“Esa Eres Tu” is a song to a woman whose life touched you while she was with you. Like their salsa recordings, El Gran Combo has included on this disc a par of pieces in a bolero rhythm and a montuno sound. “El Amor Que Te Di” is a bolero done by Charlie Aponte that changes him into a catchy and flavorful montuno singer. The hit “Siete Vidas”, with Jerry at the microphone ends the disc. It is so well done as a danceable piece, that if anyone has demonstrated that they have more than seven lives, it is El Gran Cambo, showing such force and presence with a disc of such magnitude after more than 40 years in salsa music.

To review what has been 40 years of El Gran Combo’s work is not an easy undertaking. It is vital to do justice to what has been one of the most prolific and transcendental record-making groups in tropical music. Their record making is prolific by its intense quality of success and transcendental by its reach, extension and expansion that spread El Gran Combo’s music all over the globe.

Everything began to happen in the year 1962 with the record “Meneame Los Mangos” and “El Gran Combo de Siempre”. The first was a type of experiment to see the musical possibility that El Gran Combo could be. The second already began to forge the sound and style of the group. In 1963 the disc “Acangana” appeared, where they recorded songs like “Mujet Querida”, the bomba “Santigualo” and the guarcha “Lo que Te Gusta.” From there followed “Ojos Chinos—Jala Jala”, which gave the group two hits that simply began a musical revolution.

“El Caballo Pelotero” followed. In this last album, compositions like “Preparate Jose Juan”, “El Cobrador” and “Clavo Y Martillo” were a vital part of their repetoire. “Traigo Un Tumbae, Meneito me” was a title from the second edition of this album, “El Swing Del Gran Combo”. It consisted of songs like “La Calle Dolor”, “El Chancletero” and “La Jarana”.

The end of the 70’s would be another determining step for Rafael Ithier and the existence of the group. They started with their LP “Estamos Primeros” where the cover showed “El Momo de Oro” that they won at the Caracas 70 Carnaval. Songs like “Sube Nene Sube” and “Por El Pecho No” appeared.

“De Punta A Punta” was another hit with successes like “Achilipu”, “No Quiero N’a Regalao”, “Don Goyo” and “Chango Ta’Veni”. “Por El Libro” was the next step and on this was heard “Julia.” “El Gran Cambo en Accion” in 1973 was another hit. “El Pin Pin”, “El Barbero Loco” and the classic “Las Hojas Blancas” were enough to propel the disc to extraordinary sales. With the rhythms of “Eliminacion de los Feos” and “Los Zapatos de Manacho” the records of El Gran Cambo were launched in the market.

Before the exit of Pelllin Rodriguez, the group retained the services of Charlie Aponte to begin to form a new identity for the Combo. A disc in celebration of their 12 years entitled “Disfrutelo Hasta El Cabo” marked the change, followed by “El Gran Combo 7”. In this last one the songs of “Matilde Lin,” “Te Vas A Arrepentir,” “Vagabundo” and “Un Verano En Nueva York” are heard.

“ El Gran Combo” and “Mejor Que Nuna” introduced a group in transition. “Bomba Pa’Gozar”, “Los Sorullos” and “El Jolgorio” (Wepa) were a few of the hits. Their famous 15th anniversary disc, “El Gran Combo Internacional”, marked the moment when Andy left and Jerry Rivas began his journey with the combo. “Que Falta de Respeto”, “Cuando El Hombre Quiere”, “Buscando Ambiente” and “Compadre Pedro Juan” can be heard on this last disc.

The end of the 70’s and the beginning of the 80’s can be considered the most prolific and significant years, with much expansion in the career of the group. “En Las Vegas” was a total hit from which songs like “No Hay Ya Ya”, “Aqui No Ha Pasado Nada” (which many consider the answer to the exit of Andy from the group and that El Combo did not lose strength) and “Para Ti Oyente” were born.

From this album followed “Aqui No Se Sienta Nadie” and “Unity”. In the former successes like “Brujeria”, “Mujer Boricua”, “Los Celos De Mi Campay” and “Mas Feo Que Yo”, are heard while in the later, “Companera Mia”, “Te Regalo El Corazon” “El Licor De Tu Hoquita”, “Panquelero” and “Pico Pico” are heard.

“Happy Days” was another harvest of successes with songs like “Amor Comprado”, “Todavia”, “A La Reinan”, “El Menu” and “Timbalero”. “Nuestro Aniversario”, recorded in 1982 consisted of successes like “Goyito Sabater”, “El Telefono”, “Caja de Sorpreseas” and “Se Me Fue”.

Twnety years of the group together were marked by the double disc (a collection) where the group returned to record many of their former hits with the voices of Jerry and Charlie. “La Universisdad de Salsa” was another high point of the 80’s with hits like “Mujer Celosa”, “Y No Hago Mas Nada”, “Patria” and a new version of the classic “Las Hojas Blancas” captivated the salsa lovers.

“In Alaska”, recorded in 1984, marked the essential framework of the hits “Carbonerito”, “Amor Brutal”, and “Azuquita Pal’ Café. “Innovations” in 1985 was an extravaganza of hits and feelings. “Juan Cabeza Dura”, “Camino De Amapolas”, “Resignacion” and “La Loma Del Tamarindo” made up an LP filled with affliction.

This paved the way for a second Christmas album entitled “Nuestra Musica”. The four cornerstones were classics like, “No Hay Cama Pa’ Tanta Gente”, “La Fiesta de Pilito”, “El Jibaro Listo” and “El Arboito”. It was sold in all of Latin America and marked an historic point in the path of the group, since the disc is considered one of the best of all tunes for Christmas music.

“El Gran Cambo y su Pueblo” and its 25th anniversary double disc followed. “Lirica Borinquena”, “Indecision”, “Garantia” and “Por Ella”. On the anniversary disc songs like “Nido De Amor” and “Te Regalo El Corazon” were listened to. The 80’s ended with the albums, “Romantico y Sabroso” and “Amame”. From the former, “Cupido” is heard while the latter popularized the theme song. “Latin Up”, “Eruption”, “El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico” and “30 Anos de Sabor” started the 90’s, a period of somewhat discrete in exposition on the island, but of great support of the group internationally.

“Bailando Con El Mundo” in 1992, “First Class International (1993), “La Ruta del Sabor” (1994), “Por Todo Lo Alto” (1996), “35 Years Around the World “ (1996), “Pasaporte Musical (1998) and “Nuevo Milenio, Mismo Sabor” (2001). “Pasaporte Musical” was a sort of “comeback” and from that three pieces play on tropical radio (among them “Que Me Lo Dan En Vida”), and generated a new strength for the group.

Aside from all their successes, the group never stops playing and traveling. El Gran Cambo was one of the first salsa orchestras to visit The Far East, Europe, South America and countries where salsa is not a popular music form. For the last 30 years, the agenda of El Gran Combo was kept full of performances from sea to sea. This not only served to fortify their presence on an international level, but opened new markets for salsa for “Los Mulatos Del Sabor”.

The quantity of awards won by the group is as long as their record making, but as their own Rafael Ithier said so well: “The awards are a good measure of affection, respect and love, but the true reward is to see people dancing and enjoying themselves. That is the “reason of being” for El Gran Cambo. If something has been around for 40 years, it has been successful in its consistency and its evolution. Thanks to Rafael for his risk-taking and for giving the world El Gran Cambo de Puerto Rico.



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