Friday, June 27, 2014

El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico

A review of their performance in Philadelphia

A few weeks ago Judi and I attended a performance of the Salsa band El Gran Combo at the Verizon Hall in the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia.  I’m a fan of the musical style known as Salsa, but was not aware of this group or its history.  My ignorance of El Gran Combo might sound strange, since the group has been performing for over 50 years and has sold over 100 million recordings.

The language used in this concert was mostly Spanish, as it should be.  My Spanish isn’t very good, but the music transcended any difficulty in understanding the words.  The audience waved Puerto Rican flags throughout the performance.  However, we discovered that nations throughout Latin America were represented. 

While I was unaware of the songs El Gran Combo performed, the audience frequently sang along with the band.  The overall atmosphere in the concert hall, I can only describe as electric, with people frequently dancing in the isles.

After attending the concert, I asked myself a basic question.  Why was I completely unaware of this group that had sold over 100 million recordings?  Another question I asked was, why was I completely unaware of the name Hector Lavoe before seeing the film about his life titled El Cantante, starring Marc Anthony in the title role?

The Latin Tinge

I began to answer this question by reviewing a book a read a while ago titled The Latin Tinge – The impact of Latin American music on the United States, by John Storm Roberts.  This book looks at how Latin music has been influencing the music in this country for over 100 years. 

Roberts argues that the nation most influential to Latin music has been the sister island to Puerto Rico, which is Cuba.  Roberts goes so far as to argue that the Argentine Tango was influenced by Cuban musical styles. 

Here in the United States the band known as Machito’s Afro-Cubans influenced both Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie.  Machito (Frank Grillo) and his band-leader Mario Bauza invented a style of music known a Cuban Jazz.  For about twenty years Machito’s Afro Cubans rocked New York City at a dance club known as the Palladium.

We might also consider that the music of Cuba and Puerto Rico has inspired dynamic dance styles.  People growing up on these islands routinely dance with a style designed to flow with the music.  Many people in this country can learn much about dancing from the people who were raised on these islands.

Back in the 1940’s Black Jazz musicians from this country didn’t openly identify their music with Africa.  Machito’s Afro-Cubans not only identified with Africa, but they introduced the African conga drums to this country.

The premiere recording of Cuban Jazz was titled Tanga.  When Dizzy Gillespie first listened to this music he was blown away.  At the time, Gillespie felt that the Jazz rhythms he was familiar with were rather monotonous.  This changed when he listened to the Cuban rhythms.  Mario Bauza introduced Gillespie to Chano Pozo, a Cuban percussionist.  Pozo had an important influence on Gillespie and they collaborated to write the music for Gillespie’s composition Salt Peanuts and Manteca. 

Bo Diddley was one of the pioneers of the music we know as Rock and Roll.  When we listen to Diddley’s music, we hear the basic Son, which is the beat that drives Cuban music.

Recently there was a film produced by Fernando Trueba titled Calle 54.  This film documents recent developments in Latin Jazz.  Many of these relatively new voices come from the Bronx, in New York City. 

While many people in this country are ignorant of Latin music, this history demonstrates that the Latin Tinge has always been a part of the musical styles of this country.  While other musical groups might be paid a lot more, my opinion is that El Gran Combo is clearly equal to some of the best groups I have seen.  Seeing this group introduces many to the same rhythms that have inspired some of the most influential musical artists.


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