If you’re going to see some salsa, then why not choose the best? With 150 million in album sales, and two Latin Grammy’s, El Gran Combo are possibly Puerto Rico’s greatest export, or at least the longest, having grooved up dance floors across the world for the last 50 years.
Tonight the Palace is a place of worship, with possibly Melbourne’s entire Puerto Rican community here, though also a healthy dose of Central and South American compatriots. El Gran Combo aren’t merely another band, they’re an institution, and many here tonight have grown up with their music.
The evening begins with local salsa dura band, El Barrio, who immediately whips up the crowd’s anticipation with their accompanying dancers and percussive interplays. It sounds great, but everyone’s distracted as above the stage on a video screen there’s a photo of a bunch of aging Puerto Ricans in matching suites.
It doesn’t feel like a gig per se, more a celebration of culture. A world champion salsa dancer comes and goes, leaving us with the memory of a glittery gold suite, a large smile and a flurry of physicality.
Then the DJ is turned down purposely and the crowd begin to hoot, and an advertisement for the Australia salsa open appears above the stage. Quickly though the video moves to El Gran Combo, flashing up images of ipods, turntables, 8 track cartridges, and inspirational figures from the past. Though it’s in Espanol, the gist is clear. Even during this last half century of change, one thing has remained a constant….
And suddenly we’re all screaming as the old guys amble onto stage with beatific grins that say they’re under no misapprehension about what’s about to happen. Pure unadulterated salsa heaven. This is the source. For oldies they’ve got stamina, the three singers in particular, Jerry Rivas, Charlie Aponte, and Papo Rosario don’t stop moving, pulling kitsch stage moves, gliding from side to side, twirling and dancing in unison. It should be kitsch, or would be in other hands. But for these guys it just demonstrates how well honed they are, they can do this in their sleep.
Very quickly the floor is shaking, as couples everywhere are twirling around excitedly, many barely watching the stage. Meanwhile over the next two hours the combo just does what they do best, the musicianship is seamless, the percussion amazing, and the banter between songs, almost entirely in Spanish induces hysterics. Bodies are going everywhere. People are getting photos taken with the band in the background. They want to prove they were here. Others are singing along in near hysterical ecstasy. It’s crazy. But then that’s what happens when you get close to the source.