el gran combo

Caught the final Oregon Zoo concert of the summer. I always try to make it out to their international shows (despite being highly dubious about giving any money to a zoo) because they bring artists that either would never play Portland otherwise, or would play the Aladdin for $25 or more, thus ensuring that I would never see them. I was particularly interested in catching El Gran Combo because touring Latin bands seem to play here so seldom. (Yerba Buena plays just north of us all the time and THEY HAVE NEVER PLAYED PORTLAND!) For a while it seemed like Cubanismo was the only Latin band touring in the US and no matter how good some of their shows were I got bored of seeing them after awhile. In the late ’90s I feel like quite a few bands came through town and I blew several of them off because the tickets were $25-35 a pop.
If I knew what a drought there would be from then on I would have splurged more often.

In past summers the Oregon Zoo concerts always started with the headliner going on promptly at 7pm. The few that I witnessed this summer went on much later, often with unannounced opening bands. Well, I was making my way down to the concert grounds shortly after 7pm and I could hear the sounds of El Gran Combo playing. No late start and no opening bands this time. I got to the grounds in time to hear part of a speech about “unity” and “bringing people together.” The band’s setup was very different from any other Latin band I’ve seen in that the horn section was limited to only two trombonists. There was a stand-up electric bass, a keyboard, congas, timbales, a very large, squat sit-down hand drum, four guys out in front dancing, singing, playing percussion, including panderetas.

At one point they did a bomba track and they explained that there are 30 different bomba rhythms. There was a segment of the dancer leading the drummer in the rhythm. They did a plena. Their songs seemed like there were 17,000 rhythms going on at once. I tried to count clave or any other repeating rhythm and found myself hopelessly stymied. So dense, so fast, so much syncopation. So many percussion instruments.

Despite all this I left during their set break. I was cold, improperly dressed for the chilly evening, and overcome with a draining ennui. I used to love to go to shows. I imagine I still might in the future. Lately I check something out, say “hmmm,” and after I think I get the drift I’m ready to leave. Only certain DJs keep me focused because I realize the next song might be an entirely different sound and you can’t say that of many bands.

The band was constantly calling out to the Boricuas. They kept asking (in Spanish) for the Boricuas to raise their hands and of course all the white Portlanders did. In Spanish they would ask just the men or just the women to scream and of course all the gringos (male and female) yelled both times. They were certainly speaking to the crowd in English at times, so I wondered if they were intentionally playing with the gringos when they would give instructions only in Spanish. Despite talking about unity and bringing everyone together their shout-outs to the Boricuas in the house were the dominant theme. No problem, there. I even saw a Puerto Rican flag. One thing that was interesting to note was how little salsa dancing was going on. Despite my decade-long love affair with Latin music I still can’t dance a Latin rhythm. Usually at a show like this I am one of a handful of awkward gringos solo dancing in the front and this time in a whole sea of dancers I could only make out a few couples partner-dancing. Fascinating. I imagine it will be a very different scene at this Sunday’s “Salsa en la Calle.”


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