Roberto Roena (born on January 16, 1938 in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico) was one of the original members of El Gran Combo a Puerto Rican salsa music orchestra. The group’s name derived from the name of an existing band named “El Combo” in which many of the original band members had been involved.
Born in the neighborhood of Labios de Mayagüez, Roena took his first steps in the art of dance by staging dance routines with his brother Cuqui in La Sultana del Oeste. When Roberto was nine years old, his family settled in Santurce, where the brothers continued to refine their mambo and cha-cha-chá routines, delighting their public in talent contests. This led to their contract of weekly performances on the television program “La Taberna India” on Channel Two. During the recordings, the percussionist Rafael Cortijo saw Roena in action.
When Roberto was 16 years old, Cortijo was in need of a bongo player for a group that he was forming. Visualizing a bongo player that could dance and play the cowbell at the same time, Cortijo recruited Roberto to join his new band, and personally taught Roberto how to play both instruments. For seven years, Roena was part of Cortijo’s group and his Combo, with Ismael Rivera as vocalist. With that lineup, they toured the major stages of the United States, Europe, and South America. It is worth noting that “Cortijo y Su Combo”, mostly made up of black musicians (of Puerto Rican descent), was the first of its kind to succeed in gaining access to the stages where only white artists were performing, within and outside of Puerto Rico. Combo’s good fortune ended with the arrest of its star singer, Ismael Rivera, for charges of drug possession. With the absence of “El Sonero Mayor,” Cortijo’s musicians discussed the possibility of remaining together. Some members of the group chose to distance themselves from their imprisoned lead singer, and “El Gran Combo” was born. Out of gratitude and loyalty to Rafael Cortijo, his mentor, Roena did not join the new Combo immediately. Eventually Cortijo left for New York in search of new musicians, and after nine months, Roberto, who had stayed in Puerto Rico, decided to join “El Gran Combo” which was then led by pianist Rafael Ithier.
El Gran Combo became the new sensation in Latin music, and Roena was part of the group until 1969. Desiring to establish his own salsa orchestra, Roberto formed “Los Megatones” in 1967, playing Latin Jazz Wednesday nights at a local club. Two years after forming “Los Megatones”, as a result of personal differences with Andy Montañez, one of “El Gran Combo’s” vocalists, Roberto left “El Gran Combo”. Roberto Roena’s new orchestra was baptized “El Apollo Sound” because the launch of a rocket to the moon coincided with the day of the band’s first rehearsal. Even without knowing how to read or write music, and probably because of it, Roena knew how to surround himself with excellent musicians and arrangers. “Apollo Sound” featured musicians from the ensemble of Tito Puente, “Cortijo y Su Combo”, “El Gran Combo” and “Los Sunsets”, among others. Some of the well reknown arrangers and composers who nourished his repertoire were Mario Ortiz, Bobby Valentín, Elias Lopés, Luis “Perico” Ortiz and Papo Lucca. With “Apollo Sound”, Roberto introduced a “new” sound to salsa music by utilizing two trumpets, a trombone and a saxophone, a combination he took from the influence of the wind section of the rock group Blood, Sweat, and Tears (and who recorded a successful version of “Spinning Wheel”).
Roberto always considered variety as the key to success, leading him to include in his musical repertoire everything from go-go to the romantic, the same in English as in Spanish. Roberto Roena and his Apollo Sound’s first CD produced hits of great impact like “Tú loco loco y yo tranquilo,” “El escapulario,” and “El sordo.” In fact, it was Apollo Sound who popularized the Bobby Capó classic, “Soñando con Puerto Rico.”
Apollo Sound recorded under the label International Records (a subsidiary of Fania) for a decade, in which they harvested successes like “Traición,” “Chotorro,” “Mi desengaño,” “Fea,” “Marejada feliz,” “Cui cui,” and “El progreso,” among others. His popularity on the radio waves came accompanied with tours around the United States and Latin America.
Complementing the musicality of the salsa group was always the showmanship inherent in Roberto Roena. Dying his hair in new colors, playing percussion in his underwear and sporting a harness so he could “fly” around the stage of Madison Square Garden were some of the tricks that he used to stand out among the other groups in vogue. In fact, a noted journalist that followed Apollo Sound once remarked that they were “the first group in Puerto Rico with a system of psychedelic lights and go-go girls.” Beginning in the 1980’s, Roberto Roena and his Apollo Sound experienced a fade in popularity, reflecting a crisis that was sweeping through the salsa movement in general. Nevertheless, Roberto maintained himself by collaborating and recording independently with local groups. In 1990, Roena tried to revive the concept of Apollo Sound. He opened a concert for the British rock singer, Sting, in the Coliseo Roberto Clemente, where he presented his hit salsa version of “Every Breath You Take.”
In 1994, he celebrated 25 years with his orchestra in a successful concert at The Centro de Bellas Artes, in Puerto Rico. This performance was recorded and released, presenting the validity of his musical proposal before a new generation.
Roena, aside from being a percussionist (bongos,cowbell) was a dancer and baseball player. In 1969, he went on to form a band by the name of “Roberto Roena y Su Apollo Sound”, arguably one of the best Latin salsa bands in Puerto Rico. They recorded such hits, as Y Tu Loco Loco, Traicion, Que Se Sepa and Herencia Rumbero. Roberto Roena has also been a long-time member of the Fania All Stars, a salsa group that has enjoyed worldwide success since the 1970s. He recorded his signature song, “Coro Miyare”, with the group; live performances of the song featured Roena playing the bongos and dancing with his uncle, legendary salsa dancer Aníbal Vázquez, in a choreographed section that almost always received standing ovations from the audience.
Mr. Roena took a giant step in the fusion of salsa with jazz, in the 1970s, by joining forces with African superstar (saxophonist) Manu Dibangoof “Soul Makossa” fame.
The Texas Salsa Congress is honored to have Mr. Roberto Roena part of the Texas Salsa Congress March 2011!!