The Timeless Appeal of El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico

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Charlie Aponte wins new hearts to salsa.

The trombone player of El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, Moises Nogueras, is still considered a new boy. He’s been a member for 23 years. Singer Charlie Aponte has now clocked up 41 years – nearly two-thirds of his life – in the Gran Combo. Yet he, too, was once a newcomer, given that Rafael Ithier founded this Cadillac of salsa bands back in 1962.

Half the members have been with the 14-piece band for over 30 years. “This is a family,” Aponte says on the telephone. “I spend more time with those guys than with my wife!”

Although the band has released some 40 albums and sold over 120 million albums and singles, the live repertoire is confined to the hits that its loyal fans world-wide demand – not for sitting and listening, but for dancing.

Occasionally an audience does not understand its role, as happened at a French jazz festival, which Aponte describes as “a weird feeling”. Even weirder was a folkloric festival in South Korea. Aponte remembers Ithier asking him what they were doing there. “I said, ‘I don’t know! Don’t ask me. You’re the leader. You’re supposed to know!’ Aponte represented the band at a festival press conference, where two other acts were also being interviewed. The first revealed she was going to be singing meditational songs she had learned in India, and the second was going to present the traditional instruments of Nepal. “They ask me,” he recalls, “and I say, ‘Well, man, we’re from the Caribbean. We’ve got timbales, we’ve got congas, we’ve got bongos, and people can dance and cheer!'” The band was doomed to an even more passive audience than in France. “It was really one of those moments where you want to be back in Puerto Rico,” he admits.

But the reward for 52 years of relentless touring is a new generation of salsa fans now coming to shows and requesting songs that were recorded before they were even born. “Like Las hojas blancas [White Sheets],” says Aponte. “That song’s been with the group for almost 50 years, and you see these teenaged kids asking for it. That really makes you feel great. And you see these fathers coming with these kids from seven years old who say, ‘I’m trying to teach my son to sing,’ and I think, ‘Oh, my God!’

“I consider this band to have been blessed by God. We have been through so many beautiful things and beautiful occasions with the people asking for those tunes. We’re excited about it, but everything has to end. We’re very aware of that – but we’re still going!”