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‘Roberto Roena Y Su Apollo Sound’: An Explosive Mix Of Salsa, Funk, and Soul

While astronauts were preparing to walk on the moon, Puerto Rican bongo player Roberto Roena was putting together a band.

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Cover: Courtesy of Fania Records

In the summer of 1969 while the astronauts of Apollo 11 were preparing to walk on the moon, Puerto Rican bongo player Roberto Roena was putting together a band that would take off like a rocket.

The collective excitement about the American space mission fueled by global television coverage was reaching its climax as Roena and a group of the island’s finest, heavy on the horn section, gathered for rehearsals at a restaurant called La Rue in Puerto Nuevo, outside of San Juan. By the time Neil Armstrong stepped onto the lunar surface, on July 20th, the band had been opportunely christened Roberto Roena Y Su Apollo Sound and was preparing to make its debut playing the lounge at San Juan’s San Gerónimo Hilton (later renamed the Condado Plaza Hilton). Mambo king Tito Rodríguez was moving on from his gig at the hotel and recommended Roena, who would later recall in an interview published on the website Herencia Latina that the band played at midnight from Tuesday to Sunday for six months.

Order Roberto Roena y Su Apollo Sound on vinyl.

“Every day there were lines to get in,” Roena remembered. “It was an incredible show!” In the crowd were the Puerto Rican composer “Tite” Curet Alonso and the Argentine record exec Charlie Tarrab, charged with scouting talent in Puerto Rico for the groundbreaking New York label Fania. By the fall, Roberto Roena Y Su Apollo Sound was recording its debut album, the first production released on the Fania International imprint.

The Apollo Sound’s unbounded music was in sync with that euphoric summer mood generated by the space landing, a symbol of possibility during a period of tumultuous social changes. Roberto Roena Y Su Apollo Sound soars seamlessly from salsa and Afro-Cuban rumba and bolero to funk and soul. Tite Alonso, who would emerge as one of Puerto Rico’s most prolific composers of all time, signed on as musical director of the album. He also wrote “Tu Loco Loco, Y Yo Tranquilo,” the opening track, a quintessential salsa banger.

Roberto Roena y Su Apollo Sound - Tu Loco Loco y Yo Tranquilo (Official Visualizer)

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Roena and his crew also made a salsa hit of the song “El Escapulario,” previously recorded as a dramatic copla by Pedrito Rico, a Spanish singer with a bullfighter’s air who had a fervent following in Latin America in the 1950s. The Apollo Sound lead singer Mantilla and conguero Celso Clemente give it a rumba treatment with a spare acoustic rhythm that’s pumped up to dance floor volume with a chorus of horns and voices.

“El Barrio Sin Guapo,” also by Tite Curet, namechecks the mozambique, a hyper funky Afro-Cuban style introduced by conga player Pello el Afrokán, in a song that pays tribute to Cuban music’s role as the musical cornerstone of the salsa movement. While most of the album gets down with a streetwise vibe, a cover of the beautiful Bobby Capo bolero “Soñando con Puerto Rico” plays it supper club straight.

Roena also covered a variety of English-language tracks like “Sing a Simple Song” by Sly and the Family Stone and Blood, Sweat and Tears’ “Spinning Wheel.” The album’s bilingualism comes off effortlessly thanks to the strength of a trio of Puerto Rican singers, the distinctive and under-recognized salsa singer Piro Mantilla and Félix Casiano Morales, known as Dino Guy, who drove the English songs, together with Frankie Calderon.

El Pato De La Bahía

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Still, there was one thing lost in translation. Maybe it was Roena or someone in his band, or an employee at Fania who titled his accelerated cover of Otis Redding’s meditation “(Sittin’on) the Dock of the Bay” “El Pato de la Bahia,” instead of “El Muelle de la Bahia.” Whoever it was, they ensured that the song would forever be known to salsa fans, in Spanish, as “The Duck of the Bay.”

Order Roberto Roena y Su Apollo Sound on vinyl.

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