Some musical groups have endured for half a century while maintaining their rhythmic identity, overcoming the pressures of the music industry and resisting the trends of consumer culture, much like El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico.
Unlike other salsa orchestras, especially those that emerged in New York in the late 1960s, our so-called “Mulatos del Sabor” have always protected their musical tone from complex innovations and experiments, safeguarding their own simple and rhythmic sound that has characterized them since their founding on May 26, 1962.
This doesn’t mean that over their 54-year history, they have avoided the significance of new harmonic techniques and trends brought by changing times and new generations. On the contrary, they study and enjoy them, but they generally keep them at a cautious distance to avoid diluting the distinctive features of their sound.
Thanks to this creative circumspection, the group, led by Rafael Ithier Nadal, has managed to establish a unique signature, as very few other Afro-Caribbean groups have done. You can see this in their musical catalog.
For example, by listening to the harmonization of “Acángana,” a track produced in their third album at the end of 1963, and continuing through their history with melodies like “Ojos chinos,” “A ti te pasa algo,” “Las hojas blancas,” or “Sin salsa no hay paraíso,” you can confirm this thesis.
Their longevity also results from the synchronization of artistic creation, combining music and talent, and collective fraternity rooted in a philosophy of cooperation.
Beyond the sound and rhythm of their songs, if we consider other creative and sociological elements, we can conclude that El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico is the group that best defines what we call salsa.
Without a doubt, no one in the Latin American and Caribbean environment, whether inside or outside the United States, has equaled their distinction and historical preeminence.
Part of the recipe for the success of this famous group is making everyday themes with simple, catchy, and understandable arrangements, a solid rhythm section, and a lot of clave, always keeping in mind the audience’s taste while staying true to the roots of Puerto Rican popular music. Rafael Ithier himself candidly explains this in an interview included in the draft of his memoirs:
“Since I don’t have a formal education in music, I can’t think of the works of Beethoven or Bach, but I can think of Chuíto (Jesús Sánchez Eraso) and Ramito (Flor Morales Ramos) when composing my arrangements.”
Since its founding, El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico has held an important place in our Puerto Rican and Caribbean songbook, standing out as one of the few musical institutions that represent the social and historical development of our melodic modernity. They have expertly interpreted various rhythms such as bomba, guaracha, merengue, boogaloo, jala-jala, bolero, tango, and, of course, salsa.
El Gran Combo, often referred to as “Los Mulatos del Sabor,” is undoubtedly a symbol of national and Afro-Caribbean identity, drawing from the rich cultural tradition that emerged and consolidated in the latter half of the 20th century and remains strong today.
Their artistic proposal marks a new era. Hailing from the shadow of the veteran percussionist Rafael Cortijo Verdejo, the musicians who founded El Gran Combo in 1962 created a rhythmic sound that immediately captivated the national audience and, in a short time, during their first decade, began to establish strong roots in venues across the United States, Colombia, Venezuela, and Panama.
The breadth of their repertoire, the liveliness of their choreography, the charisma of their members, and their ability to incorporate playful melodies and everyday narratives fueled their success.
In this way, the group founded by Rafael Ithier, Quito Vélez, Martín Quiñones, Miguel Cruz, Héctor Santos, and Eddie Pérez, along with Milton Correa, Daniel “Maninín” Vázquez, Micky Duchesne, Chiqui Rivera, and Pellín Rodríguez, quickly became known for their ability to entertain and get people dancing.
Shortly after their formation and the addition of Roberto Roena and Andrés “Andy” Montañez to the collective, El Gran Combo’s work shone on television, becoming the first musical ensemble in Puerto Rico to fully dominate this mass medium.
Their public presence was formidable: for seven consecutive years, they maintained a daily radio presence and had twelve television programs a week, making them the sensation of the country’s music scene. They also set the guidelines for the development of national popular music at a time when Puerto Rican society was undergoing significant socioeconomic transformation.
During their first seven years, El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico produced albums like “Menéame los mangos” (1962), “El Gran de siempre” (1963), “Acangana” (1963), “Ojos chinos-Jala jala” (1964), “El caballo pelotero” (1964), “El swing del Gran Combo” (1965), “En Navidad” (1966), “Maldito callo” (1967), “Esos ojitos negros” (1967), “Boleros románticos” (1967), “Fiesta con El Gran Combo” (1967), “Boogaloo con El Gran Combo” (1967), “Tú querías boogaloo” (1967), “Pata pata, jala jala Boogaloo” (1967), “Tangos por El Gran Combo” (1968), “Merengues” (1968), “Los nenes sicodélicos (1968) “Bombas” (1968), “Guarachas” (1968), “Latin power” (1968), “Smile” (1968), and “Este sí que es” (1969).
At the same time, the power of the group was felt in the main music venues in New York City, where there was a strong Puerto Rican community.
However, the glory achieved by El Gran Combo in its early years began to wane in 1969. That year, all their appearances on radio and television were canceled, their record company, Gemma Records, terminated their contract, their public bookings dwindled, and significant members of the collective, such as Roberto Roena and Elías Lopés, left to form the Apollo Sound orchestra.
At the same time, the music market became more competitive. There was also the emergence of new Afro-Caribbean sound orchestras based in New York that set a new course for popular dance music. The budding salsa movement no longer revolved around the island. New York had become the epicenter of international salsa, where hundreds of bands played every weekend.
Faced with these conditions, the survival of El Gran Combo depended on their ability to reinvent themselves. When the group members left for the United States, the search for a new vocalist and timbales player became a necessity, ultimately leading to the addition of Charlie Aponte and José Torres.
Within months, the group released two albums on the Gema label: “Vamos pa’ la conga” and “Acángana.” The album cover of “Acángana,” which featured a vibrant tree in full color with a shining sun in the background, marked a new era for El Gran Combo. This symbolized the dawn of a new day after a dark night of gloom. It was like a resurrection.
New York had adopted them as a symbol of Puerto Rican cultural identity, and even other Latin American and Caribbean communities saw them as the perfect representation of the island. This reevaluation of their artistic work by the public, and the success of their albums and concert series, once again positioned El Gran Combo as the number one salsa orchestra.
Between 1972 and 1975, they produced a series of albums that would seal their fame and consolidate their artistic and musical proposal: “Por el libro” (1972), “La universidad de la salsa” (1973), “El caballo pelotero” (1973), “En las Vegas” (1973), “En acción” (1974), “Lo mejor de El Gran Combo” (1974), “Fiesta con El Gran Combo” (1974), “7” (1974), “7 veces caliente” (1975), and “En Navidad” (1975). Most of these productions, which carry the cultural representation of the island, enjoyed great success.
Their popularity reached its peak during this period, with the American media paying close attention to their shows and multiple radio stations praising their musical performance. With the release of their album “7” (1974), they marked another hit with the song “Los zapatos de Manacho,” and their successful performance at Madison Square Garden, which was documented by the television program “Soul Train.”
The series of successful productions produced during this period also included “7 veces caliente” (1975), which featured a beautiful version of “Llorarás.” This song, originally recorded by Oscar D’León, was also made popular by Héctor Lavoe, who recorded his own version on his album “De ti depende” (1976).
The group was well received in Latin American countries, where their recordings became big hits. They performed in different countries, including Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela, where they not only shared their music but also their social values.
Today, their music remains in the hearts of people. Their hits are classics in the genre, and their impact on the development of salsa as a genre is undeniable. El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico is not just a musical group but a cultural institution that has left an indelible mark on the world of music.