Roberto Roena, “El Señor Bongó,” is a Puerto Rican bomba and salsa legend who rose to prominence with Cortijo y Su Combo, was a founding member of El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, went solo as Roberto Roena y Su Apollo Sound and became a FANIA All-Star.
Roena died last night on September 23, 2021. We are writing this from Ultimo Trolley in Santurce, across the street from Residencial Luis Llorens Torres where Cortijo lived, near Calle Calma where Ismael Rivera grew up, and Villa Palmera where many great bomberos and salseros including Rafael Cepeda and Tommy Olivencia are from. Roena ran with all of them. He is survived by his children Brenda, Gladys, Ivan and Francisco. Thank you for all the good times. @RobertoRoenaOficial
We got to see him live at La Placita in Santurce, San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2019. We couldn’t stop dancing. The whole plaza just started to move.
Roberto Roena is a salsa percussionist and band leader. He is also a great dancer. He was born in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico on January 16, 1940. Mayagüez is known as the original home of Bomba, the Puerto Rican drum, chorus and dance tradition.
Roena’s dancing got him noticed by Rafael Cortijo. By the way, Tito Puente was a dancer before he was a percussionist too. Because this is dance music, you almost have to dance it before you play it.
The Fania All-Stars 1976 Africa concert is legendary. Fania All-Stars leader Johnny Pacheco told Roena not to show off because we’re in Africa and Africans can really dance. Roena busted out some moves anyway. By all accounts the Africans loved it. Roena starts dancing at about 4:15 in the video.
Cortijo y Su Combo
Roena rose to prominence with Ismael Rivera when they both performed on the daily TV show “El Show de Cortijo y Su Combo” in 1954 and 1955.
Cortijo was the bandleader who popularized Puerto Rican bomba. Before Cortijo, bomba was originally considered low class (like all Latin music). Cortijo y Su Combo was one of the first Afro-Puerto Rican bands that was able to tour in the U.S. So they popularized the music and broke racial barriers. Today bomba is a core expression of Puerto Rican identity on the island and in the diaspora.
El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico
In 1962, Roena became one of the founding members of El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, the most popular salsa group of all time.
Roberto Roena y Su Apollo Sound
Roena went off on his own in 1969 with Roberto Roena y Su Apollo Sound. He chose the band’s name because their first day of rehearsals was the day of the Apollo 11 moon launch.
The Apollo Sound’s front line was two trumpets, a trombone and a saxophone. That was a little bit different sound in salsa. Their signature hit is “Tú loco loco.”
He was a member of the Fania All Stars in the 1970s. His signature song with them is “Coro Miyare.”
Roberto is a real character. He is one of the great Latin showmen. You just can’t stay in your seat when his band plays.
Roberto Roena in New York City
Ya, na’ má’.
Sunday, October 13, 2019 ~ Roena plays Bar Code in Elizabeth, New Jersey at 2pm (doors). From $50
Saturday, October 12, 2019 ~ Roena plays Calibre 78 in Jackson Heights, Queens at 8pm (doors). From $40
Saturday, January 26, 2019 ~ Roena plays Lehman Center in Jerome Park, The Bronx at 8pm. From $50For this concert, the band will be joined by Sammy González, Tito Cruz, Carlos Santos and Endel Dueño.