Que Pasa en El Gran Combo?


There are persistent rumors and signs that support them (I include a couple in this blog) that the recent retirement of Charlie Aponte from El Gran Combo is a symptom of dysfunction within the Puerto Rican Salsa group.

The rumors started with Charlie Aponte’s retirement announcement. The subsequent behaviors seen by members of El Gran Combo and other artists seems to support the persistent rumor. If the rumors are true, we could see some more changes in the “Universidad de la Salsa”.

Rumor: Willie Sotelo brings Discord within El Gran Combo

El Gran Combo with Willie Sotelo, Rafael Ithier, Eddie Perez, and Charlie Aponte.
Willie Sotelo (front right) has been the focus of rumors that point him as the cause of the exits of Eddie Perez and Charlie Aponte.

The rumor is that pianist and arranger Willie Sotelo has brought a different style of leading the EGC. Apparently Sotelo’s management style has caused friction among band members. Rafael Ithier brought in Willie Sotelo to replace him not only at piano, but also as band manager.

Long time Gran Combo member Taty Maldonado had assumed many of the leadership functions of the group as Ithier aged. Therefore, many expected Taty to officially inherit the group’s leadership upon Ithier semi-retirement.

But instead, newcomer Sotelo was appointed by Ithier. Apparently, this didn’t sit well with the rest of the band members. Rumors say that the recent Charlie Aponte departure was due to a change Willie Sotelo did in their vacation policy. The group normally takes January off to spend it with family. However, Sotelo apparently broke that tradition by booking El Gran Combo for a few gigs in January. Apparently Charlie saw this as the last straw, and decided to leave.

Signs That Support the Rumor

Eddie “La Bala” Perez Fired – the first problems on Willie Sotelo’s administration came with Eddie “La Bala” Perez. Eddie was forced out of El Gran Combo after being with the Ithier since the Cortijo y su Combo days. Additionally, he was the only other founding member left of the group.

Yes, Eddie had some health issues. However, he was dealing with them so that they wouldn’t affect the group. The real issue here was they way in which Eddie was treated by El Gran Combo. And some people point to Willie Sotelo as the author of how that situation unfolded. The issue with Eddie Perez even reached the filing of lawsuits. This was a sad thing to see in a group with the reputation El Gran Combo had for so many years.

Ithier Not at Charlie Aponte’s Retirement News Conference – like in Eddie Perez case, there was a news conference scheduled that Rafael Ithier had agreed to attend to show support. However, like in La Bala’s case, Ithier didn’t show up! Ithier is obviously going to support the group leader he appointed. Check out this interview taken after his Retirement News Conference:

El  Gran Combo’s Last Performance in Puerto Rico – in the last performance of El Gran Combo, the faces of most in the famous Salsa group were mostly straight. There were some glimpses of fun, but it seemed mostly like “the show must go on”.  Here’s the video of the start of that performance, where you can notice the sober expressions in El Gran Combo’s faces. Of course, this is natural knowing it was Charlie’s last performance with the group.

Silence on Charlie’s Departure

Rafael Ithier comments on Charlie Aponte – while in Colombia, Rafael Ithier was asked about Charlie Aponte retirement, and whether he will support him. Ithier, which previous answers regarding Charlie were limited to just a few words, said that he could not worry about Charlie Aponte or anyone else individually, but that he must focus on El Gran Combo.

Not expressing anything good about Charlie in his responses, and not even wishing him good luck, seems to reflect some resentment on the issue.

No Comments from Other Musicians – one of the most rare things is that other musicians have remain muted on Charlie’s retirement news! Not Gilberto Santa Rosa, not Papo Lucca, not Roberto Roena, not members of El Gran Combo, not anyone! Most of them would have voiced their support. However, as you can see from the attached interview, Charlie maintains the highest respect for Rafael Ithier.

If other musicians comment on what’s happening inside El Gran Combo, they could be hurting both Ithier and Charlie. Both of them have the utmost respect in the music industry for anyone to try to add controversy to the issue.

Impact on El Gran Combo of Charlie Aponte’s Retirement

Charlie has been asked about issues with Willie Sotelo. Charlie has been careful to not deny differences, and in the process defended Sotelo’s job as band leader. He said that the bandleader’s job is to focus on the interest of El Gran Combo, not of anyone in particular. He stated that Sotelo’s job is not an easy one, and that his decisions, might not be the most popular. However, Charlie didn’t relate any of his comments to his decision in particular.

All of the above seems to indicate that Charlie Aponte took his decision based on his time spent with El Gran Combo and what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. We don’t know if the catalyst for the decision was some issue he had with Willie Sotelo. However, he did mention that while El Gran Combo will go back to Colombia on January 4th, he will be leaving that same day with his family on a vacation trip! Was this coincidence?

If the Willie Sotelo rumors are true it could mean there is a crack in the haul of El Gran Combo’s boat. If the source of conflict is not repaired soon, it could eventually sink the boat. It would be almost unthinkable to ponder the breakup of the musical institution of Puerto Rico.

El Gran Combo has been through many problems in their many years in Latin music. I’m confident they’ll find a way to fix their current issues and continue on for many years to come.

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  1. […] What I like especially is that the song is fitting for Charlie Aponte’s decision to leave El Gran Combo, as the main reason he gave was precisely to spend more time with family. At the same time, the […]

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