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Roberto Roena, salsa percussionist and bandleader, dies at 81
His albums and performances with Apollo Sound brought new complexity to the genre in the 1970s. His group was still getting the crowds dancing decades later.

by Neil Genzlinger

NEW YORK, NY.- Roberto Roena, a dancer who became a bongo player who then became a bandleader, along the way establishing himself as a leading figure in salsa and some of its best-known bands, died Sept. 23 in Puerto Rico. He was 81.

Andrés Waldemar, a singer in Roena’s orchestra, announced his death on social media but did not specify a cause. Local news reports said he died at a hospital in Carolina, outside San Juan.

Roena was best known as the founder of Roberto Roena y Su Apollo Sound, which released a string of well-regarded albums in the 1970s, salsa’s heyday. He was also a member of the Fania All-Stars, a group formed about the same time to showcase stars of the Fania record label, which was often described as the Motown of salsa.

Onstage Roena was a whirlwind, dancing out front while banging a cowbell when he was not playing bongos. Apollo Sound was still getting crowds dancing decades later.

“The music always darted forward, driven by the sound of metal being struck by wood,” Peter Watrous wrote in The New York Times in 1998, reviewing an Apollo Sound show at the Copacabana in New York City. “Roena’s placement of notes, the way they fit into patterns, brought the audience and the musicians together in a form of personal rhythmic transcendence. Roena has that kind of power.”

Pedro Pierluisi, the governor of Puerto Rico, where Roena was born, declared Saturday to be a day of mourning in Roena’s honor. He called the death “an irreparable loss for Puerto Rico and the whole world, but especially for salsa lovers.”

“Iconic songs like ‘El Escapulario,’ ‘Cui Cui,’ ‘Mi Desengano,’ ‘Marejada Feliz’ and many more transcended generations,” the governor said in a statement. “His musical legacy of more than 60 years will remain with us.”

Roberto Roena was born on Jan. 16, 1940, in Mayagüez, on the island’s west coast. His family later moved to the Santurce district of San Juan, where as a boy he and a brother worked up some cha-cha and mambo dance routines that garnered enough acclaim to get them onto a local television show.

After catching the act, the Puerto Rican musician and bandleader Rafael Cortijo invited Roena, who was only 15 or 16, to join his orchestra, Cortijo y Su Combo, as a dancer and chorus member. Cortijo, a percussionist, began schooling him on the bongos, and soon Roberto was part of the band.

When Cortijo’s group dissolved, Roena became part of the salsa orchestra El Gran Combo, recording and touring internationally. It was in 1969 that he formed Apollo Sound — named, some versions of the tale go, because its first rehearsal coincided with the launch of Apollo 11, the first mission to land astronauts on the moon. The group almost had a different name.

“First I wanted to put Apollo 12, because we were 12 musicians,” he told La Opinión in 1996, “but then I thought, if the United States launches Apollo 13, we are obsolete.”

With Apollo Sound, Roena took salsa to a new level of sophistication, working in two or even three trumpets and a complex rhythm section to create a propulsive sound that drew on the music of jazz-rock groups like Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears. Its live shows were wild, with Roena setting the tone, and its albums for Fania were steady sellers.

In an interview with The Times in 2014, when he was part of the lineup for a Fania Records tribute concert in Central Park, Roena credited the label’s founders, Johnny Pacheco and Jerry Masucci, with creating the salsa phenomenon.

“Jerry and Johnny gave you the freedom to do your own thing,” he said. “They allowed the musicians to express themselves the way we wanted, and that led to a lot of hit records.”

His survivors include his wife, Antonia María Nieves Santos, and four children, Brenda, Gladys, Ivan and Francisco.

Roena was still performing well into his 70s. He had a minor heart attack in 1995, but, he said in the 1996 interview, that was not going to keep him off the stage.

“I get tired,” he said, “but when I climb onto a platform, I am a different person.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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