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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Combo leaves salsa aficionados begging for more

June 16, 2003|Ernesto Lechner | Special to The Times

It was a night to remember for Los Angeles' burgeoning salsa scene: The Sportsmen's Lodge's ballroom was filled to capacity with more than a thousand rabid salseros, legendary group El Gran Combo performed a solid set of nothing but hits, and a brawl erupted in the middle of the crowd.

At the center of it all was a 40-year-old band that exemplifies the beauty of Puerto Rican salsa, a genre often ignored in favor of its flashier Cuban counterpart.

Frothy and elegant, Puerto Rican salsa favors instrumental cohesion over individual virtuosity. On Combo classics such as "El Menu" and "Azuquita Pa'l Cafe," the results Friday were not so much visceral as light and infectious, informed by the kind of old-fashioned pop choruses that evoked the orchestra's glory days of the '60s and '70s.

Led by founding member and keyboardist Raphael Ithier, El Combo is also known for the impeccably timed dance steps and comedic skits of its three singers. These were mostly colorless on Friday, but when they did succeed, the routines underscored the band's quintessentially Latin sense of humor -- carnal and naive at the same time.

L.A.'s salseros are notoriously blase when it comes to saluting the music's masters. But not this time. Chanting along to the Combo's hits and begging for yet another encore, the crowd turned what could have simply been a good show into a memorable evening.

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