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Through this Latino Music Café blog series, we’ve examined the history of El Gran Combo through the decades.
In this part of this blog series, we examine how the 2010 decade was for El Gran Combo, and what challenges await Los Mulatos del Sabor.
More “Arroz con Habichuelas” in Paradise
It took El Gran Combo four long years to come out with a follow-up album to their smash hit “Arroz con Habichuelas“. They seem to have written down the formula this time, as “Sin Salsa No Hay Paraiso” took over where “Arroz con Habichuelas” left.
“Sin Salsa No Hay Paraiso“, released in 2010, opened with the title song, this time written by Ricky Martinez, debuting at #9 on the Billboard Tropical Airplay Chart. Juan Jose Hernandez contributed another 3 songs for this album, with the most prominent being “La Espuma y la Ola“.
Another favorite of Salsa fans was the version of “A Mi Me Gusta Mi Pueblo“. This is a song written and made famous by Puerto Rican folk singer Andres Jimenez. The Salsa arrangement came out great.
Another song that reinforced the album was the old song “Achilipu“. El Gran Combo first recorded this song in their first album with the trombone, the 1971 classic “De Punta a Punta“.
El Gran Combo 50th Anniversary and Banco Popular Tribute
As El Gran Combo was looking to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2012, Banco Popular decided to pay tribute to them in their 2010 Christmas special with “Salsa, un Homenaje a El Gran Combo“.
The special featured guest artists singing El Gran Combo songs, as well as El Gran Combo themselves. But the best part is perhaps the interview with most of the members, starting with Rafael Ithier, on how they entered El Gran Combo.
A couple of years later, they recorded “50 Aniversario, Parte 1” which ended up being released in 2013 (a year late if you ask me). Instead of just adding a compilation of old songs, el Combo actually recorded new versions of some of their old classics. Some sounded great in the new arrangements, others not so much.
One thing about this album was that it was Part 1. However, Part 2 never came out. Many of us Salsa fans remained to wait for that implied Part 2.
Significant Departures: Eddie Perez
The departures from El Gran Combo so far this decade will mark an inflection point in the future of this legendary band.
Eddie “La Bala” Perez left or was fired, in 2013. Eddie says he was fired and was fired unjustly. Eddie’s health had been deteriorating and in the middle of his illness, was fired. Rafael Ithier said he became unreliable and was affecting the band. He said, and then Eddie said. And this became a sorry spectacle in the press.
“La Bala” Perez had been with Ithier since the Cortijo y su Combo days. Additionally, he was the only remaining founding member of El Gran Combo other than Ithier. I believe they should have solved their differences in a better way, and the ball was on Ithier’s side. They dropped it on this one!
With the departure of Eddie, “los mulatos” lost the guy in the back that tilted backward and swung his shoulders (he called it “el meneito“). They also lost the child-like falsetto on the chorus during live performances. Eddie’s falsetto chorus was legendary and a trademark since the days with Cortijo.
Finally, El Gran Combo also lost that big finish to each of their songs with that unmistakable “Ahhhiiiiiiiiiii“. Every time I heard it, I felt as if he just punched an imaginary seal of “authentic Puerto Rican 100%” in each song. I remembered it since the very first time I saw El Gran Combo live in El Show de las 12 on my grandma’s TV when I was a kid. Perhaps it’s the one thing I miss the most.
Virgil Rivera, a graduate from Puerto Rico’s Music Conservatory entered to substitute Eddie Perez in alto-sax. Besides the sax, the young musician also plays the flute and the clarinet.
Significant Departures: Charlie Aponte
About a year later (2014), singer Charlie Aponte abruptly called it quits. Charlie had been in El Gran Combo for 41 years.
Note: I wrote a blog to celebrate Charlie’s 40 years with El Gran Combo, and towards the end shared my thoughts on what I thought would happen when the day came he decided to retire. You can read to see if my predictions were true HERE.
Charlie Aponte brought that touch of “jibarito” (countryside) flavor to El Gran Combo. He has a flavorful singing style, can sing in clave as well as anyone, and is the best improviser / “sonero” El Gran Combo has ever had. Pellín Rodriguez and Andy Montañez were great singers. They could come up with some really unique “soneos“. But still, they were not as good at improvising as Charlie.
Besides singing more Salsa hits for El Gran Combo than any other singer in their history, Charlie also brought his dancing skills with him. He was a quick study of Mike Ramos on their 7 years together. And pretty much kept the dancing routines alive.
Another great quality was that Charlie made a great duo of voices with Jerry Rivas. Charlie can do the highs and Jerry the lows with a great harmony of voices.
As you see the band perform these days, you can notice that the energy in the front line is not the same. When they play old numbers, the singers still follow the old dancing routines, but with less enthusiasm. In the newer songs, the dancing is certainly unremarkable.
Significant Departures: Luis “Papo” Rosario
Due to health problems with his back, Papo Rosario officially leaves in 2019. He spent about two years battling the back problem, including performing from a chair.
Papo was substituted by Joselito Hernandez, who began replacing him since 2017. Joselito has proven to be a very good singer with an outgoing and humble personality that fits well with El Gran Combo. He also brings a high-pitch voice, to contrast the lower voices of Jerry Rivas and Anthony Garcia.
Other Departures: Victor “Cano” Rodriguez
“Cano had been a trumpeter with El Gran Combo for 37 years; since 1980. He came from the great band of Tommy Olivencia to take over for Nelson Feliciano. Another of Cano’s great accomplishments was that he was the co-founder of Arecibo’s Escuela Libre de Música. During 2016, Cano’s health deteriorated quickly and unfortunately passed away in 2017.
Once again there was some controversy about Cano’s illness and death, as it was said by his family that Ithier abandoned the long-time Gran Combo member.
Anthony Garcia’s Moon Landing
The young singer Anthony Garcia joined El Gran Combo in 2015 to replace Charlie Aponte. To get their fans acquainted with their new singer, the band quickly released a new single “Yo Soy Tu Amigo“ (2015).
Then, the following year, the band released their first recording featuring Anthony Garcia titled “Alunizando” (Moon Landing). The album reached Billboard’s #1 spot for Tropical Albums, a spot it held for 3 weeks. And fan reviews were mostly positive, although there are a lot of dissatisfied fans with Anthony Garcia. This is somewhat expected for new singers entering El Gran Combo.
For me, Anthony’s voice and singing style are well-suited for Salsa Romantica. El Gran Combo is using him mostly for romantic songs. Anthony does have a good sense of clave in his “soneos“. However, his voice has a low pitch and therefore does not contrast well with Jerry’s voice.
If we look back at the band singers, Pellin Rodriguez had a high-pitched voice vs. Andy’s lower pitch (although Andy can go as high as he wants with that super voice of his). When Pellin left, Charlie substituted him with his high-pitch voice. When Andy left, Jerry substituted him with his low-pitched voice. So all along, the balance of high pitch/low pitch voices was maintained. That was broken with Anthony, and now El Combo has two low pitch voices as main singers.
On the other hand, Anthony does seem to have a pleasant personality that suits well the band.
Challenges & Perspectives Towards the 2020s
The 2010s saw key changes in the band that transformed its identity.
Charlie and Papo formed, along with Jerry, a great front line of singers who could sing, dance, and entertain the public. They also were contemporaries that made a great trio of personalities.
Eddie”La Bala” was an icon in the group since it was founded.
The new identity of the band led by Sotelo has been questioned by some of its long-time fans. It recorded only 3 albums, Anthony appeared in only one, and Joselito wasn’t around for any of them.
Will El Gran Combo be able to convince its followers that the new direction is as good as previous versions of the band?
We’ll discuss that in our final part of the series, the 2020s.