The Golden Celebration of a Salsa Legend: El Gran Combo


Rafael Ithier, in white tuxedo, founder and musical director, with members of El Gran Combo.
By Annika Ray Darling
In 1962 El Gran Combo began playing together for the first time, and across the Atlantic Ocean, more than 4,000 miles away, so did the Rolling Stones. Fifty years later,  El Gran Combo played their first 50th anniversary concert Nov. 11, 2012, and later that same month, the Rolling Stones played theirs.
El Gran Combo’s legacy parallels the Rolling Stones on many levels. Worldwide, El Gran Combo is to salsa music what the Rolling Stones are to rock and roll, and, like the Stones, El Gran Combo has become a music legend.
Founded in Puerto Rico in 1962, by Rafael Ithier, who remains current leader and musical director, El Gran Combo is regarded as Puerto Rico’s most successful band. It has even been considered, in an article by the New York Times, as “the most popular salsa group that has ever existed.”
Since their inception El Gran Combo has recorded more than 70 albums, all certified Platinum and Gold sales. They have sold more than 50 million records worldwide in their incredible 50-year career and still perform more than 150 shows annually.
Ithier, now 86 years old, seems immune to the fatigue of such a grueling schedule. When asked about the difficulties that accompany such ambitions, such as the 50th anniversary tour, Ithier seemed perplexed, responding, “Difficulty? It is not difficult. Most of the time we are traveling,” and to be sure, he added, “I am very happy.”
El Gran Combo’s 50th anniversary world tour is taking this legendary salsa orchestra to five continents, with the hopes of extending it to all seven. El Gran Combo has already made stops in Japan, Korea, and Australia, and began their U.S. tour on the East Coast, with Washington, D.C., on March 14. This past weekend they brought their incredible salsa sounds to The Belding Theater at The Bushnell in Hartford.
Over the span of 50 years El Gran Combo has seen an incredible influx of talented musicians and singers, so much so that the orchestra received the moniker La Universidad de la Salsa (The University of Salsa); due to the sheer number of talented young musicians whose careers were catapulted by association, in one way or another, with El Gran Combo.
Despite the constant flow of different musicians, El Gran Combo’s signature style has given it a venerable reputation as a premier salsa band: “We have a unique sound and this is because we maintain the original style of the group,” says Willie Sotelo, pianist and tour director of El Gran Combo, “If we have a new member he will have to play our style. That’s the way it is.”
Sotelo’s eight years with the band makes him the newest member of the group, as many members have been with El Gran Combo for more than three decades. Sotelo initially stepped in to cover Ithier in 2006, while Ithier was sick, but upon return Ithier allowed Sotelo to remain as pianist and moved to primarily conducting. Sotelo expresses he has big shoes to fill and says, “I am trying my best to imitate his style.”
The key to El Gran Combo’s longevity and success may lie in their close relationship with their fans. When asked about some of his fondest memories with Gran Combo, Ithier takes a long pause, then says, “There has been a lot of highlights over 50 years, but the most important thing is to be with the people: that the people love us. It is the warmness between the people and Gran Combo that is the best, and the most important.”
It is quite clear there is an enormous amount of love between El Gran Combo and its fans, but what is El Gran Combo’s internal secret to longevity? While many bands disintegrate after a few years at the top, El Gran Combo has remained strong for half a century. In response to this inquiry about the secret of the group’s popularity, longevity, and vortex of talent, Ithier laughingly said, “I don’t know. I pay very well.”
El Gran Combo continues to charge ahead at full speed, full of courageous goals, with plans to be the first salsa band to tour all seven continents. Africa is El Gran Combo’s next target, and then onto Russia; both tentative locations would be added to the 50th anniversary tour.
“Nothing is certain,” says Ithier, about Africa, while Soleto speaks with positive assurance: “We have people we are speaking to about Africa. We are working on it.”
The entire El Gran Combo ensemble
For more information on El Gran Combo’s 50th anniversary world tour go to its website.