If the legendary Gran Combo represents the meat-and-potatoes of Puerto Rican salsa, then the equally revered Sonora Ponceña must be some sort of exquisite dish for the discriminating palate-- a smooth crème brulée, perhaps, overflowing with jazzy harmonies and sophistication. La Ponceña owes most of its refinement to the piano playing of musical director Papo Lucca-- the son of original founder Enrique 'Quique' Lucca.
Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico on April 2, 1946, Enrique 'Papo' Lucca began playing the piano with his father's band at age 11. Initially, La Ponceña performed covers of tropical hits of the moment by bands such as Cortijo y su Combo and La Sonora Matancera.
In the late '60s, Papo became La Ponceña's musical director, beginning a deep transformation that would eventually establish the group as one of the most progressive outfits in the history of Afro-Caribbean music. Papo's arrangements were daring and adventurous, experimenting with elements of Brazilian music, mainstream jazz and rock. Representing the authentic spirit of Puerto Rican salsa, his piano solos are velvety and funky, marked by their restrained, supremely elegant sense of swing.
By the mid-'70s, La Ponceña was enjoying unprecedented critical and commercial success. The band recorded for the Inca label, which eventually became part of the Fania empire. Papo was called to arrange and play on sessions by some of the label's biggest artists, including Johnny Pacheco, Celia Cruz and Cheo Feliciano. He was also invited to record and tour with the Fania All Stars.
This compilation pays tribute to the artistry of Papo Lucca through 14 seminal tracks recorded between 1967 and 1981. Although Lucca has worked both as a solo artist and with a multitude of salsa stars, it is his work with La Ponceña that best distills his remarkable vision.
This music is all about making people happy and ignite in them the desire to dance, says Lucca from his home in Puerto Rico. People will accept your music as long as it is danceable, no matter how complex it is. At the same time, salsa voices out the problems of the barrio and acts like an aural newspaper of sorts.
Our journey begins with two early firecrackers from the Ponceña catalogue: "Hachero Pa'Un Palo" and "Fuego En El 23" are covers of songs by Cuban bandleader Arsenio Rodríguez. La Ponceña has always shown a weakness for Puerto Rican folklore, but it has also found plenty of inspiration in the golden era of Cuban music.
The exact moment when La Ponceña becomes a mature tropical orchestra with complete control over its one-of-a-kind aesthetic can be heard on the six tracks culled from the albums Musical Conquest/Conquista Musical and El Gigante Del Sur. Released in 1976 and 1977 respectively, they represent the zenith of the salsa movement.
These exhilarating tracks combine virtuoso musical dexterity with thoughtful lyrics and a healthy sense of humor. "Ñáñara Caí" is a hilarious narrative of sheer magical realism, describing a world where everything is upside down (my favorite line: "Yo vi a una vaca/Chocar con Pacheco"-- "I saw a cow/Crashing against [Johnny] Pacheco). Also from Musical Conquest, "El Pío Pío" achieves the perfect cross between gritty Afro-Cuban vibe and hummable pop. This mega-hit is still an obligatory part of Ponceña's live appearances wherever they go.
The opening track of El Gigante Del Sur, "Boranda" delivers a salsified take on progressive rock. Its lyrics include a heavy sociopolitical message, and the sophistication of its arrangement is a slap on the face for anyone who thinks that this music is only good for dancing. "Soy Tan Feliz" combines a bolero mood with Papo's electric piano solo, styled after the psychedelic jazz-rock sound of the '70s. "Noche Como Boca 'E Lobo" engineers a tasty collision of salsa fever and Brazilian rhythms.
Lucca was not alone in his mission to reinvent the rules of Puerto Rican dance music. He benefited from the instrumental prowess of some of the best players in the island. And when it came to enlisting lead vocalists, his instinct was flawless.
Some of the Ponceña singers featured on this compilation are the smoky voiced Tito Gómez, who would later become a salsa star with Colombia's Grupo Niche; the inimitable Luigi Texidor, who added a feeling of bonhomie to every single song he ever performed; and Yolanda Rivera, who brought variety to the band's songbook with her unique pitch and soulful interpretations.
One of Rivera's happiest moments with the band is included here: culled from the 1980 session Unchained Force, Johnny Ortiz's "Borinquen" is a moving ode to Puerto Rico blessed with a sinuous melody and a silky instrumental arrangement-- one of the most transcendental moments in the Ponceña canon.
The golden days of salsa are nothing but a distant memory in the new millennium, but Papo Lucca continues to shine. Perhaps because he hasn't stopped recording new music, he refused to idealize the past when I asked him about his all-time favorite Ponceña album.
That would be the last one - the most recent one, he explained in his trademark gruff voice. All of the albums were very important for this orchestra, because they achieved what we set out to do with them: each one reaffirmed the one that came before it. That's your mission when you attempt to maintain an orchestra that has been around for over 50 years.
The maestro was a little more forthcoming when I asked him to mention his favorite Ponceña concerts.
Probably my first concert with the Fania All Stars at the Madison Square Garden, around 1974, he said. Every single one of the Fania stars was still alive. A couple of years later we played in front of 47,000 people in Cali. My knees usually shake a little before every show, but this time they were really trembling.
Written By Ernesto Lechner.
Celia Cruz/Johnny Pacheco/Justo Betancourt/Papo Lucca
The musical director with Puerto Rico's legendary Sonora Ponceña, Papo Lucca had contributed luminous piano solos to the pair of classic albums that bandleader and Fania co-founder Johnny Pacheco and the Queen of Salsa Celia Cruz recorded in 1974 and 1975: Celia & Johnny and Tremendo Caché.
In 1976, Pacheco took this collaboration a step further by giving Lucca and sonero Justo Betancourt equal billing on a session that was meant to celebrate the roots of Afro-Cuban music: "Recordando El Ayer." Remembering yesterday.
It was a wonderful experience, recalls Lucca from his home in Puerto Rico. We recorded it together in the studio, the way albums were made in those days. Pacheco made it a point that the four of us should be depicted on the cover, since we all contributed ideas during rehearsals. I remember there was a conscious attempt on our part to make an album that would be even better than the previous Celia & Johnny sessions.
Papo Lucca's solos have always defined the very essence of Puerto Rican salsa: the supreme elegance, the barely restrained swing, the unexpected melodic turns and a close connection to the pianists of mainstream American jazz. Lucca's solo spots on “Ritmo, Tambor y Flores” and “Ahora Sí” are worth the price of admission here-- not only the solos per se, but the swinging explosion of trumpets and rhythm section that follows them.
You listen to what everybody else is doing, and your personal style emerges on its own, explains Lucca. There was a Puerto Rican pianist named Mario Román that influenced me as a student. I would go to see him every night at the Hotel Continental. I should also mention everyone I ever listened to: Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Charlie and Eddie Palmieri, Peruchín, Rubén González.
If Papo Lucca's influences are not always obvious, Pacheco's certainly are. Growing up in his native Dominican Republic, he was bewitched by the songs of Arsenio Rodríguez and Orquesta Aragón that he would listen to on Cuban radio.
Throughout his recordings of the early '60s, Pacheco paid tribute to traditional Cuban charanga. Then, he spent most of the '70s updating and honoring the conjunto sound popularized all over Latin America by La Sonora Matancera-- the band that launched Celia Cruz.
While other Fania musicians were busy pioneering the urban salsa sound through a gritty combination of Afro-Cuban stylings with '70s r&b, Pacheco generated what the experts call "la matancerización de la salsa." To Pacheco's ears, the vintage Matancera nuggets were the epitome of cool. Remembering yesterday was trendy. He added modern touches to the arrangements, but the vibrant swing of the '50s remained unchanged.
Some of the tracks in "Recordando El Ayer" were hits with the original Matancera. “Yerbero Moderno”, in fact, was an indispensable part of La Reina's repertoire-- she continued singing it onstage until her death in 2003. “Ritmo, Tambor y Flores” was also one of Celia's happiest moments with La Matancera, and one of this record's highlights.
Most of the material in this seminal session is relentlessly upbeat. Lover of bolero tenderness, however, will fall head over heels with the smoldering duet between Celia and Justo Betancourt on “Cuando Tú Me Quieras”. It is the only melodramatic moment in an album that, now more than ever, underscores the infectious joy of vintage Afro-Cuban dance music.
Johnny Pacheco - Leader, Flute, Güiro, Percussion
Papo Lucca - Piano
Luis Mangual - Bongos, Cowbell, Timbalitos (Paila) solo ("Reina Rumba")
Johnny "Dandy" Rodriguez - Congas
Luis "Perico" Ortiz - Trumpet
Hector "Bomberito" Zarzuela - Trumpet
Charlie Rodriguez - Tres
Harry Viggiano - Tres
Victor Venegas - Bass
Eddie "Guagua" Rivera - Bass
Ismael Quintana - Maracas
Lead Vocal - Celia Cruz , Justo Betancourt
Producer – Jerry Massucci
Recording Director – Johnny Pacheco
Written by Ernesto Lechner
El director musical de la legendaria orquesta puertorriqueña La Sonora Ponceña, Papo Lucca había contribuido sus formidables solos de piano al par de discos que el director de orquesta y co-fundador de la Fania Johnny Pacheco y la reina de la salsa Celia Cruz grabaron en 1974 y 1975: Celia & Johnny y Tremendo Caché.
En 1976, Pacheco le dio todavía más poder a esta colaboración al otorgarles a Lucca y al sonero Justo Betancourt igual protagonismo en una sesión que buscaba celebrar las raíces de la música afrocubana: "Recordando El Ayer".
Fue una gran experiencia, recuerda Lucca desde su casa en Puerto Rico. Lo grabamos estando todos juntos en el estudio, como se hacían los discos en esa época. Pacheco insistió de que saliéramos todos en la carátula, porque tanto la misma Celia como nosotros aportamos muchas ideas durante los ensayos. Tratamos de mejorar lo que ya se había hecho entre Celia y Johnny.
Los solos de Papo Lucca definen la esencia misma de la salsa puertorriqueña: la suprema elegancia, el swing al borde del desenfreno, los fraseos melódicos inesperados y una fuerte conexión con los pianistas del jazz estadounidense. Los solos del tecladista en los temas “Ritmo, Tambor y Flores” y “Ahora Sí” justifican la compra de este disco-- no sólo la labor del piano en sí, sino la explosión de trompetas y base rítmica en la que desembocan los solos.
Escuchando a otra gente, uno crea su propio estilo, explica Lucca. Había un pianista en Puerto Rico que me influenció como estudiante. Se llamaba Mario Román y yo lo iba a ver todas las noches al Hotel Continental. También debería mencionar a todos los otros pianistas que me inspiraron: Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Charlie y Eddie Palmieri, Peruchín, Rubén González.
Si las influencias de Papo Lucca no fueron siempre fáciles de adivinar, las de Pacheco ciertamente lo fueron. Durante su infancia en la República Dominicana, creció hechizado por las canciones de Arsenio Rodríguez y Orquesta Aragón que escuchaba en las estaciones de radio cubana.
En sus grabaciones de los comienzos de los '60, Pacheco le rindió tributo al sonido tradicional de la charanga. Más tarde, pasó la mayoría de los años '70 modernizando el sonido de conjunto popularizado a través de Latinoamérica por La Sonora Matancera-- justamente la banda que lanzó a Celia Cruz al estrellato.
Mientras que otros músicos de la Fania se revelaban como pioneros de la salsa urbana a través de una explosiva combinación de estilos afrocaribeños y el rhythm and blues estadounidense, Pacheco se dedicó a una corriente que los expertos llamaron "la matancerización de la salsa". Para Pacheco, los temas añejos de la Matancera eran la esencia misma del cool. Recordar el ayer estaba de moda. Le inyectó toques contemporáneos a los arreglos, pero el swing de los '50 permaneció intacto.
Algunas de las canciones de "Recordando El Ayer" fueron éxitos con la Matancera. “Yerbero Moderno”, por cierto, fue un tema indispensable dentro del repertorio de La Reina-- continuó cantándolo en concierto hasta su muerte en 2003. Ritmo, Tambor y Flores fue uno de los momentos más felices de Celia con la Matancera, y uno de los puntos altos de esta grabación.
La mayoría de estos temas son ideales para el baile. Pero los amantes del bolero caerán rendidos al escuchar el fogoso dúo entre Celia y Justo Betancourt en “Cuando Tú Me Quieras”. El único momento melodramático dentro de un disco que, ahora más que nunca, enfatiza la contagiosa seducción de la buena música afrocubana.
Johnny Pacheco - Lider, Flauta, Güiro, Percusión
Papo Lucca - Piano
Luis Mangual - Bongó, Campana, Timbalitos (Paila) solo ("Reina Rumba")
Johnny "Dandy" Rodriguez - Congas
Luis "Perico" Ortiz - Trompeta
Hector "Bomberito" Zarzuela - Trompeta
Charlie Rodriguez - Tres
Harry Viggiano - Tres
Victor Venegas - Bajo
Eddie "Guagua" Rivera - Bajo
Ismael Quintana - Maracas
Cantantes Principales - Celia Cruz , Justo Betancourt
Productor – Jerry Massucci
Director De Grabación – Johnny Pacheco
Escrito por Ernesto Lechner