Puerto Rico's sons of salsa

Cuba has long been considered the fountainhead for salsa stylings, but other countries within the Caribbean basin have had considerable impact on the way the music sounds today as well. Puerto Rican musicians have melded the danzon, jibaro and plena rhythms at the heart of their island's indigenous music with salsa's Afro-Cuban rhythms, creating a hybrid with even more rhythmic flexibility and (more importantly) dance-ability.

Pianist Rafael Ithier has carried on this tradition for 35 years with his group, El Gran Combo. A member of legendary conga player Rafael Cortijo's band until 1962, Ithier stayed until internal conflicts within Cortijo's band began to affect him. According to Ithier, he was one of the first to leave and was all set to take classes for his CPA license when most of Cortijo's group came "to my home, trying to convince me to do something."

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Ithier envisioned a band whose democratic roots and communal approach to business realities would minimize the conflicts that could affect a group's existence. Ithier devised an approach that stressed the group over a bandleader. "I try to tell them that we will work together, all of us, and we are going to have all the benefit of the money, whatever, everything," says Ithier.

The approach created security and a sense of ownership for El Gran Combo's 13 band members. While the altruistic premise behind the band's operations is a socially progressive one, it would mean little if El Gran Combo didn't have the musical chops to make the whole thing work. One of the most striking examples of the band's magic can be heard in the infectious swing of "La Loma Del Tamarindo," found on El Gran Combo's two-disc retrospective, "35 Years Around the World." Ithier lays down a pulsing piano riff emboldened by the percussion section and topped off by horns -- with everything percolating beneath Charlie Aponte's expressive tenor.

Ithier's role as head arranger and first among equals has kept the band's vision intact over the course of 50 albums and numerous personnel changes. The current lineup features singers Aponte, Jerry Rivas and Papo Rosario as well as a fiery rhythm section that layers complex patterns into elegant dance equations. Ithier and El Gran

Combo have not only proved their relevance as musicians, but have also debunked the myth that true salsa only comes from Cuba.

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