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Rivalries in Latin Music by: Tommy Muriel

      Unlike spontaneity and musicianship, ego-trips and competition have been an "integral" part of Latin Music since its inception. I say this because (and perhaps you are already familiar with my point of view about this) during the current race for commercialism in music, perhaps the "musicianship" clause is still there, but the "spontaneity" element is pretty lost. Nowadays, if you’re an aspiring salsa musician, you must definitely know how to read music; if you are able to sight-read, even better. But unfortunately, with rare exceptions, salsa if becoming way too mechanic, in the sense that all the new bands, most of their arrangements and, mostly, all newcomers are, sound, and look alike. And since nowadays everybody is a soloist (most of them don’t even have a working band until their recording company does the "dirty work" of promoting, and for some cases, I mean dirty), competition in Latin Music has been merely reduced to a match between record companies. As for some of these new singers, their competition reduced to two categories: (1) who, with or without payola, gets the most airplay, and (2), whose ego is the most bloated. Of course, and this is a parenthesis, not all the newcomers are mere products of marketing tactics. And no, not every new singer is a mere case of "good looks and (please!) look no more" (and no, I definitely won’t mention those "exceptions" here, I’m not here to hurt nobody’s career, even if it’s fair).

    Competition between bands and/or singers have been the source of inspiration for some of the most memorable moments (redundancy intended) in Latin music. Whether their "feud" was about whose band sounded the best, who gathered the most people during their performances (hence, who sold the most albums, if they did record an album), or just simply who did get the top line on advertisements, competition was the main fuel that drove Latin music to unexpected heights on the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s and early 80’s. For this essay, I have compiled some of those moments, and the songs created by those.

  • Perhaps many of you have read about the legendary Palladium "feud" between Tito Puente and the late Tito Rodriguez during the 50’s and early 60’s. This was an "in your face" arrangements competition between two of the heaviest bands of all times. The point here is that both contracts (Puente’s and Rodriguez’s) had "top line" clauses that guaranteed them top billings whenever they performed there. And somebody had the idea to book both bands for a "once in a lifetime" dance marathon. I read on a Max Salazar article on Latin Beat magazine, that the guy in charge of the marquees that night had a rough shift switching both guys last names back and forth whenever one of the bandleaders walked out to see whose name was on top. And Rodriguez won’t settle for alphabetical order billing for obvious reasons either. The egos were flying high that night. Many years later, both guys have stated at different times that there was no animosity between them. In fact, most of Rodriguez’s key players, like Mario Rivera, Jerry Sanfino, and Bobby Porcelli (saxophones), Johnny Rodriguez (percussion) and Mike Collazo (drums/timbales) have been or are currently playing with Puente. But the recordings both made during that time frame tend to say the opposite. Watch out Tito Rodriguez’s classics "El Que Se Fue" and "Yo Soy Tu Dolor," for example. And on Puente’s side, check out the opening lyrics for "Timbalero:" (Spanish, then the translation:)

" Cuando me veas llegar, echate pa’lla.

Tu ves que no somo’ iguales…"

(Translation: "Step aside whenever you see me arriving. Don’t you see you’re not a match for me?")

  • Salazar, this time on the liner notes for Puente’s album "Master Timbalero" (Concord Picante, 1994), states that Puente is at his best whenever he had a challenger. Besides his rivalry with Rodriguez, Puente had a challenger in his own orchestra when Mongo Santamaria (then the band’s conguero) brought Willie Bobo as a substitute for Manny Oquendo on bongos. Willie had been surrounded by lots of hoopla regarding his reputation as a timbale player, something that Tito (otherwise known as "El Rey Del Timbal") didn’t like at all. But, upon the insistence of Santamaria, Puente agreed to hire him. Most people (especially those fortunate enough to witness it, I wonder if anybody ever filmed that) say that the timbale battles within them two, whenever Puente dared to ask Bobo to go one-on-one with him, were simply incredible. Others say that Puente’s vintage solos came from that era with Bobo in the band. Later, both Bobo and Santamaria abandoned the band when Puente attacked them verbally after they recorded a session for California-based vibist Cal Tjader. Thus, Tjader’s golden era begun when these two became full time members of his band.
  • One of the most memorable "bouts" here in Puerto Rico came to life during the 70’s. Andy Montañez, then the lead singer of the most popular band in town, El Gran Combo, accepted a lucrative contract to leave them and relocate to Venezuela, as lead singer of the Dimension Latina orchestra. Not only the Combo members were furious about that (at the time, they said that was a low blow, in boxing terms), but none of them appeared at Andy’s farewell party. Not only that, for their very next album, titled "Aqui No Ha Pasado Nada" ("Nothing has happened" in English, that should give you a hint about what was their mentality for that album), the title track includes this soneo (ad lib line) by the new (and still current) lead singer Charlie Aponte:

"El que de aqui se va es porque le da la gana.

Nosotros te lo advertimos, piensa bien en el mañana."

(Translation: "Whoever leaves this band does it at his own risk. But we’ve warned you before: you’d better think about your future.")

  • But Andy promptly replied back. And he did it twice. Not only he recorded a solo album with another ex member from El Gran Combo, former singing partner Pellin Rodriguez (of all people), where the lead track, "Alacran," was a direct response to "Aqui No Ha Pasado Nada," but he gave it another shot on the Puerto Rico All-Stars album "Los Profesionales." On the leading track of this album, "Aqui En Mi Pueblo" (a beautiful composition from Mike Amadeo), Andy not only states that "I don’t want to die in any strange land, if I’m gonna die, it rather be in my own homeland," but check out his very first two soneos from this track and judge by yourself:

"Que triste es ver sucumbir a una ilusion y a una idea,

y asi desenmascarar a una amistad no sincera."

(Translation: "Is sad to see an illusion and an idea being frustrated,

And harder it is to unmask a friendship that’s not sincere.")

"No lo digo por rencor ni por lo que yo he sufrido,

lo digo por mi conciencia de lo que es un buen amigo."

(Translation: "I don’t say this because of any bitterness, nor for anything I have ever suffered, but because of what I think should be a good friend.")

  • In spite of all this, two years ago El Gran Combo celebrated their 40 years in the business. And, surely enough, Andy Montañez was one of the main guests, plus Pellin Rodriguez’s son, Puchi, sitting in for his late father. And they were all happy on stage and even joking about all that happened two decades ago. How’s that for a happy ending?
  • But this wasn’t the only "controversy" surrounding Puerto Rico’s Musical Flag. Circa 1981 or ’82, El Gran Combo celebrated their 20th anniversary. As part of that series of concerts, a musical reunion of the band’s original cast of characters (including Pellin, Andy, Roberto Roena, Martin Quiñones, Milton Correa and others) was assembled. After the success of this reunion, several proposals were awaiting for them, like an album release and the making of a tour of concerts (pretty much the same that happens with the ex-Menudos nowadays). Most of the guys accepted the deal, but founders Rafael Ithier and Eddy Perez, pianist/leader and sax/"captain" respectively (and still in charge of El Gran Combo’s current staff) declined the offer for obvious reasons. So the remaining founding crew recorded an album under the name "El Combo Del Ayer" ("Yesterday’s Combo," loosely translated) and started their own tour. On that album, they recorded a song titled "Verdadero Aniversario" ("Real Anniversary"). Not only the title itself was clearly sending a subliminal message, but the lyrics as well:

"Verdadero aniversario. Sentimiento diario.

Veintipico de años de estar cumpliendo bien la mision."

(Translation: "This is the real anniversary. This is our daily feeling.

Twenty-and-something of doing our mission right.")

El Gran Combo’s crew promptly replied. On their album "Nuestro Aniversario" ("Our Anniversary," check the subliminal response right there), released in 1982, the title track exposes the current cast’s point of view in a very particular way:

"Gracias al publico oyente por este triunfo obtenido,

a nombre de los que estamos y tambien los que se han ido."

(Translation: "For this victory we heartily thank our listening audience

In the name of those of us in the band and those who had gone away.")

As a matter of fact, after two other albums (the last one with Luigi Texidor joining Pellin on lead vocals), El Combo Del Ayer disbanded. Roberto Roena re-assembled his Apollo Sound, Texidor and trumpeter Elias Lopes did the same with their own orchestras, both Pellin and Martin Quiñones died during the late 80’s, Frank Revilla (Ithier’s replacement on this group after a long time with Tommy Olivencia’s band) died circa 1994 and El Gran Combo, with Ithier and Perez, is still alive and kicking. Andy Montañez never became a member of El Combo Del Ayer either, but, ironically, his fellow Combo founding musicians didn’t chastise him, so Andy remained out of the picture during this plot.

  • New York City’s salsa scene had some of its schemes during the 70’s. Consider this verbal round between Adalberto Santiago and the members of Tipica’73 after he left that band. After their successful 1975 recording, "La Candela," half of the band (Santiago, Orestes Vilato, Joe Manozzi, and Nelson Gonzalez) resigned to form a new band (Los Kimbos) after differences about where to go, musically. While the leaving half wanted to keep the traditional ("Tipico") sound of the "conjunto," the remaining half (pianist Sonny Bravo, trombonist Leopoldo Pineda, trumpeter Rene Lopez and road manager/percussionist Johnny Rodriguez wanted to continue exploring the new trends on Cuban music (successfully done on the aforementioned album), as well as boosting the band’s sonority. After the split, the vacant positions were filled with virtuosos like violinist Alfredo De La Fe, Nicky Marrero on timbales and drums (the 1977 album "The Two Sides" includes a rare trap drums solo by Nicky, his only one recorded to date), and sax players Mario Rivera and Dick "Taco" Meza. The singer spot was filled by Tito Allen, later by Camilo Azuquita and finally by Jose Alberto "El Canario." On the band’s 1978 album "Salsa Encendida," they recorded a track titled "Los Campeones De La Salsa" (composed for them by the late Louie Ramirez), where singer "El Canario" states that Tipica’73 is the hottest salsa band in New York. A year later, after Los Kimbos’ splitting up, Adalberto rejoins Ray Barretto on his return to salsa (after Ray’s unsuccessful fusion jazz period). During Ray’s conga solo on the track "Adelante Siempre Voy" ("Always a Step Ahead" in English), from their album "RicanStruction" (a word play with the words "reconstruction" and "Puerto Rican"), Adalberto yells out "Mira y que campeones de la salsa…!" (Translation: "Who, you? Champions of salsa?") Two years later, on Tipica’73’s last album ("Into the 80’s"), "El Canario" answers back. On the track "Chachaguere," he not only confirms "Seguimos siendo los campeones de la salsa" (Translation: "Were STILL the salsa champions."), but also has a very subliminal message for Adalberto: "Popeye, me comi tus espinacas…" (Translation: "Hey, Popeye, I just ate all your spinach…," obviously a reference to Adalberto’s 1978 solo album for Fania, "Popeye El Marino")
  • During the 70’s, the Fania All-Stars also received a challenge. Producer Franklin Gregory reunited some of the hottest singers and musicians from Puerto Rico to form the Puerto Rico All-Stars (PRAS). The Puerto Rican "salsa dream team" included Andy Montañez, Tito Allen, Marvin Santiago, timbalero Endel Dueño, pianist Papo Lucca, Lalo Rodriguez, Luigi Texidor (right out of his decade long stint with Papo and Enrique "Quique" Lucca Sr.’s Sonora Ponceña), Palmieri’s former conguero Eladio Perez, and trumpeters Elias Lopes, Mario Ortiz, and Augie Antomattei (from Bobby Valentin’s band) among others, under the leadership of trumpeter Juancito Torres. Montañez and Santiago led the first "attack" on PRAS’s first album. On the track "Reunion En La Cima" ("Reunion at the Summit"), Andy adds this comment during the moña (brass section-led bridge) of the song:

"Aqui no hay eso de apellido con ‘Uchi’ ni…"

(Translation: in an obvious reference to Fania’s president Jerry Masucci,

"Here’s no such thing as an impresario with a rare name like ‘Uchi’ or…")

Marvin makes a less personal statement near the end of his track "Los Tambores," but the challenging message is quite clear:

"Damas y caballeros, ustedes perdonen. Pero estos jibaritos del la’o de aca tocamos ASI! Oye a esta gente!"

(Translation: "Ladies and gentlemen, please forgive us. But we the Puerto Rican "jibaritos" on this island really sound like this! Just wait until you listen to these people!")

Luigi Texidor also adds a point on "Cachomba," one of his two features in this album:

"Mismo apellido, pero nos llamamos Puerto Rico…"

(Translation: "Same last name, but our first name is Puerto Rico…")

But the most relentless attack was made by Lalo Rodriguez, who joined the band for their next two albums, "Los Profesionales," and "Tribute to the Messiah" (a musical tribute to Eddie Palmieri). On his track "Alianza De Generales" ("Generals’ Alliance") from PRAS’s second album, Lalo uses most of his soneos as "punches" to the rival (Fania’s) band:

"Tu tienes plata, (pero) yo tengo la llave."

"El fantasma no esta en la urbe, el fantasma esta en San Juan."

"Si los cogemos de frente, nos los vamos a llevar."

"Amigos, no se equivoquen, no se confundan mas. Es la Puerto Rico All-Stars."

(Translations: "You may have all the money, but we do have the real thing." "The monster (note: this is an abstract reference meaning "The real sound") is not in New York (Fania’s headquarters), but in San Juan." "If we have all of you in front of us, we’ll bump you over. " "Ladies and gentlemen, please stop confounding us. We’re the Puerto Rico All-Stars.")

Then, on the Palmieri tribute album, Lalo, along with the chorus, state this during bassist Polito Huertas’ solo on the track "Oyelo Que Te Conviene:"

"Cuando Polito Huertas toca, la gente no se va. Se sienta a escucharlo. Y si lo escuchan en La Habana, pues…"

(Translation: "When Polito plays, the audience doesn’t leave. They’ll rather sit down and listen. And if you (Fania guys) are listening to this in Havana, well…")

This Havana reference is included, obviously, as a mockingly response to what happened during Fania All-Stars’ trip to Cuba to participate in 1979’s Havana Jam. It has been said that the Cuban audience, who wasn’t briefed about Fania’s music before their arrival, and on top of this, was still under the influence of that government-led ban on Salsa (some Cubans still regard Salsa as a "by-product" of Cuban music, but that’s a theme for another essay), left the building during Fania’s performance. And it has also been said that Cuban musicians in attendance that night remained there and enjoyed the performance (and were later influenced by it, as some of the music done in Cuba during the 80’s tend to imply).

PRAS’s cry-of-battle is that their approach to Latin music forced Fania to use more sophisticated arrangements for their own stellar band. And that is definitely true. Ironically, as a result of an impressive deal with Columbia Records which later turned bittersweet, the Fania All-Stars recordings for this label were flirting with jazz and pop-oriented jazz (look for "fusion" in your dictionary). This explains that, for recording purposes, Fania was reduced to a sextet (The Fania Six: Pacheco, Valentin, Roena, Lucca, Nicky Marrero, and Ray Barretto, who was later replaced by Johnny Rodriguez), with cameo appearances by Celia Cruz, Ruben Blades, Ismael Miranda, Louie Ramirez and Luis "Perico" Ortiz. Some Fania fans just didn’t understand what was happening and accused Fania of "watering down Salsa." So PRAS came at the right moment, so that and the overall virtuosity of the band explain their success. (Ironically as well, PRAS’s attempt to sophisticate their sound by including trova and other genres into their repertoire was heavily criticized) Precisely in 1979, Fania, who wasn’t giving much attention to the recordings made by PRAS, released their last album for Columbia, "Cross Over." In that album, (in my opinion, only the A side of that album is worth something; their attempt to "respond fire with fire" by recording discomusic on the B side is one of the greatest mishaps of musical history), Fania finally responds to PRAS on the opening track "Los Bravos:"

"Con las Estrellas de Fania nadie se meta.

Escuchen todos los "bravos." Llevense esa…"

(Translation: "Don’t anybody mess with the Fania All-Stars." Hey, you ‘spoiled brats:’ take that.")

And on their 1980 release, "Commitment," Fania’s triumphant full-time return to Salsa, Adalberto Santiago (who apparently loves competition) lands this during his track "Dinamita:"

"Dinamita es lo que traigo, para las ‘estrellitas…’ "

(Translation: "Here’s some dynamite, for those ‘twinkle twinkle little stars…’ ")

After the Palmieri album, PRAS was disbanded as well. Ironically enough, some of their members were or currently are members of their rival band, the Fania All-Stars. Some of them (Juancito Torres, Luigi Texidor and Elias Lopes) were with Fania during that Cuban trip in 1979 and (except Lopes) have remained in the band; Andy Montañez, as you know, joined Fania in 1996. Papo Lucca was already a member of the Fania All-Stars when PRAS was formed.

  • Hector Lavoe always had a knack for rivalry. Most of the time it was with his fellow Fania All-Stars members. During a TV appearance circa 1985, an apparently "worked-out" (as in "high" or "boozed") Lavoe portrayed Ismael Miranda and Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez as "patos" (Spanish slang for "homosexuals"). Nicky Marrero received the same "terminology" during his last recording session with Willie Colon (released, in spite of Willie’s objection, as "The Master And The Protégé" for Fania in 1995). But that’s nothing to be taken seriously, as it was Lavoe’s nature to joke with them on his own, peculiar way. In fact, Both Lavoe and Marrero share a humorous moment that occurred during Marrero’s debut as a Fania member in 1973 at Yankee Stadium. On the Richie Ray/Bobby Cruz’s showcase song, "Hermandad Fania," Marrero takes a solo on timbales. During his performance, he actually stops playing, moves a microphone to mouth level, and starts whistling into the microphone. Lavoe, using his own mike, jokes at him by saying mockingly "Here’s Nicky the clown." Then Lavoe adds "El que no se fuma el pito porque…" (translation: "Luckily he doesn’t smoke his own whistle, because…") as Marrero interrupts him by yelling "Echa pa’lla, que tu no trabajas..." (loosely translated: "Get out of here. At least I got a day job…"). Check out all of this on Fania’s "Live at Yankee Stadium, volume 2" album.
  • But Lavoe’s rivalry wasn’t reserved only for his colleagues. The following anecdote appears courtesy of Tite Curet Alonso: During a gig circa 1970 or ’71 while still a member of Willie’s band, some Puerto Rican elder asked them to play a danza. Lavoe, surprised, stares at Willie, then says, half-jokingly, "que le pasa al jibarito este?" ("What’s wrong with this ‘hick,’ anyway?") And that "jibarito" rolled up his sleeves and beat the hell out of Hector. That explains Hector’s rude dedication ("Para ti, motherflower…") preceding the danza bridge on the song "Soñando Despierto," from Willie Colon’s following (1972) album "El Juicio."
  • Finally, speaking of Willie Colon, the "bout" that defined the ’80 was that one starring him and Ruben Blades. After a 6-year string that included strong albums like Siembra, Metiendo Mano, Solar De Los Aburridos, and the "Maestra Vida" series, plus an attempted B class movie titled "The Last Fight," Colon and Blades split up. And the separation was harsh for both parts. Most people still believe (despite Blades’ denial) that his "Camaleon" (from his 1992 album for Sony Discos, "Caminando") is dedicated to Willie. The tune talks about this envy-driven guy who passes as your best friend and stabs you in the back. And some even went farther by stating that Willie’s "El Gran Varon," if you take out the homosexual disguise, is a response to "Camaleon." A phrase on Colon’s 1983 "Corazon Guerrero" mimics a soneo made by Blades on the song "Madame Kalalu" implying that at that time press was still haunting Colon for his opinion on the split with Blades. Unlike all the other examples I’ve compiled here, this Colon/Blades saga was actually a feud. The Colon/Blades reunion of 1992 in San Juan (and the Los Angeles’ 1997 follow-up) was possible after years of battling with egos on both sides and, as they both said on separate interviews, "comments taken out of context by press." It’s no secret that Colon is responsible for Blades’ success, in the sense that, if you examine Salsa’s status in 1976 (the year when "Metiendo Mano" was released), Ruben’s climb to stardom status couldn’t be possible without Willie’s input and vision. Ruben, at that time, was accused of being a Cheo Feliciano carbon copy, because of the similitude in vocal styles. But Willie, who was already looking for something different to say musically, saw Ruben as a possibility, because of his innovative approach on composing, using politics and social themes in his songs. So, after the outcome, it’s equally valid to say that one of the reasons for Colon’s current longevity in Latin music is Blades’ input. Otherwise, Colon’s career would end up like, for example, most of the Fania stars, which, once the 70’s boom expired, saw their careers on the downslide.

As you see, Salsa (or Latin music, whatever you want to call it) has a lot of stories, and, most important, lots of hits and lots of audible documentation, And there are many other stories surrounding the history of Salsa that were a product of friendly (and unfriendly) competition. Of course, before the "erotic invasion," creativity was that main ingredient that drove singers, musicians and bandleaders to achieve their best and try to outsmart their respective challengers. Nowadays, it seems that the impresarios on backstage, and not the singers or musicians or the bandleaders, are the real stars of the picture. And that is what most Salsa enemies emphasize on their attacks. A famous Cuban writer once stated in 1993 (on the liner notes of a Cuban jazz album) that Salsa was "easy to dance, easy to forget." He even offered a free copy of that album to anyone capable of mentioning a successful Salsa hit. Obviously he missed most of the last three or three and a half decades (where the real salsa was king) somewhere else but on this hemisphere, in my humble opinion. I don’t mean to antagonize with him, but if he really meant that as a real offer (the free album), he’d be broke by now. If this helps, I already got a copy of that album (and I loved it), so he’ll save a few bucks with me. To be continued.

(If you have any interesting anecdote like these and it’s worthy to be printed (no gossips, please), or you want to add or refute something to this article, you may e-mail me at these addresses: tommy_muriel@mailexcite.com or famcruz@caribe.net.)



El Combo Del Ayer, "El Combo Del Ayer" (TTH, 1982)

Fania All-Stars, "Live At Yankee Stadium, vol. 2" (Fania, 1975)

Tito Puente, "Puente: Fania Legends Of Salsa, Vol. 3" (Fania, 1994)

PRAS, "Puerto Rico All-Stars" (Combo, 1977)

PRAS, "Los Profesionales" (Combo, 1978)

PRAS, "Tribute To The Messiah" (Combo, 1979)

Fania All-Stars, "Cross Over" (Columbia, 1979)

Fania All-Stars, "Commitment" (Fania, 1980)

Tito Rodriguez, "Charanga Pachanga" (WS Latino)

Tito Rodriguez, "Returns To The Palladium" (WS Latino)

Willie Colon, "El Juicio" (Fania, 1972)

Willie Colon, "Corazon Guerrero" (Fania, 1983)

Willie Colon, "Top Secrets" (Fania, 1989)

Ruben Blades & 6 Del Solar, "Caminando" (Sony, 1992)

El Gran Combo, "Nuestro Aniversario" (Combo, 1982)

El Gran Combo, "En Las Vegas (Aqui No Ha Pasado Nada)" (Combo, 1978)

Tipica’73, "Salsa Encendida" (Inca, 1978)

Tipica’73, "Into the 80’s" (Fania, 1991)

Tipica’73, "La Candela" (Inca, 1975)

Ray Barretto & Adalberto Santiago, "Rican Struction" (Fania, 1979)

Andy Montañez/Pellin Rodriguez, "Encuentro Cercano de Dos Grandes" (Velvet, 1978)


Books, Magazines, Articles:

Max Salazar, "A Page From The Past" (Latin Beat Magazine, May 1998)

Cesar Miguel Rondon, "El Libro de la Salsa" (1979)

Jaime Torres Torres, selected articles from El Nuevo Dia newspaper (www.endi.com)

Video footage:

Ismael Miranda/Tite Curet Alonso, interview for "Dime La Verdad" TV show (WLII-TV, 1993)

Efren Arroyo, "Hector Lavoe, El Cantante" (WAPA-TV, 1993)

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