El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico and La Sonora Poncena are probably the best Salsa bands from Puerto Rico. Choosing one or the other is a though choice. These two bands share striking similarities including years of experience in the field, strong leaders, outstanding singers, unique brass sections, and a broad compilation of hits. The following is the ultimate face off between two of the best Salsa bands in history.
Long Salsa Experience
El Gran Combo and La Sonora Poncena were born almost at the same time. Although La Sonora Poncena was formed a bit earlier (1954), both bands recorded their first albums at the beginning of the 1960s. This means, the two bands lived through the whole period that shaped Salsa music during the 1960s and 1970s.
They were, in fact, top players of the boom of artists and bands that consolidated the sounds of Salsa back in that time. This also means that these two orchestras have been around for more than half of a century, something that few bands can claim today.
Something else these two bands share is a strong leadership. Both of them have been able to survive throughout the years thanks to their respective pianists. On the one hand, El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico has found in the legendary Rafael Ithier not only a good pianist but also a good manager who has always taken care of the band's distinctive sound.
On the other hand, La Sonora Poncena has been led by one of the best pianists in the history of Salsa: Papo Lucca, son of the original founder of the band. Thanks to Papo Lucca, La Sonora Poncena has created that unique Jazzy sound that has marked the band's music.
The music of both bands have been sung by some of the most talented singers in Salsa. For several years, El Gran Combo has been able to keep together three faces on stage: Papo Rosario, Charlie Aponte and Jerry Rivas. This stability has allowed El Gran Combo to reinforce its own musical sound.
Although la Sonora Poncena has changed a bit more its singers, the band has been always good at choosing the right voices. In this way, La Sonora Poncena has been able to create some sort of flexibility around its own image. In other words, La Sonora Poncena has relied less on its singers compared to El Gran Combo. Whether that is good or bad, that is just a fact.
Unique Brass Sections
These two Salsa bands have developed most of their amazing sound thanks to their brass sections. Although both bands have unique brass sections, they are also different. On the one hand, El Gran Combo has combined in a clever way two trumpets, two saxophones, and one trombone. On the other hand, La Sonora Poncena has based its brass sections on four trumpets.
If you want to better understand El Gran Combo's brass sections, the beginning part of the song "Con Eso" is definitely a good track to listen to. In the same way, if you want to understand how La Sonora Poncena uses its brass sections, I would like to suggest the middle part of the song "Te Vas De Mi" from the album Back To Work.
Compilation of Hits
Everything is measured by the number of hits. Considering the amazing repertoire produced by both bands for the past decades, it is almost impossible to choose one band over the other. The two bands have produced some of the greatest Salsa songs in history. Let's compare, for example, El Gran Combo's "Mujer Celosa," "Azuquita P'al Cafe" and "Y No Hago Mas Na'" against La Sonora's "Yambeque," "Canto Al Amor" and "Prende El Fogon." Which band would you pick? I know it is almost impossible to make up your mind.
Probably, the only way out of this dilemma is by favoring one kind of sound over the other. My impression is that hard Salsa fans tend to embrace a little bit more La Sonora Poncena's music while mainstream fans find El Gran Combo more appealing.
In the end, most people (at least that has been my own perception) tend to say they like them both. That is probably the best way to deal with this face off. This is ultimately what happens when you compare two of the best Salsa bands in the world. I guess, we can say we have a tie here, unless you want to express your preference in the poll about El Gran Combo and La Sonora Poncena.