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In 1954 Lito Peña quit Cesar Concepción’s organization to start his own orchestra, taking with him Berto Torres, Luisito Benjamín and three of his four musician brothers, with the idea of bringing back the more authentic African roots to the music, to make sure that both the bomba and the plena kept their original sound, thus reaffirming their national identity as Puerto Rican. Peña did this because he felt the repertoire of traditional Puerto Rican music could be just as popular with international audiences as the watered-down version if it was treated respectfully while presented in the same grand manner as Concepción’s large orchestra format, with sympathetic big band arrangements that augmented elements already in the original forms such as the complex African rhythms and drumming that accompanied them.  

But Peña, Torres and Benjamín had an even more ambitious project in mind with La Panamericana because they wanted to do more than just showcase their beloved Puerto Rican styles and melodies in a big band format. They were interested in the orchestra being a vector for the expression of all the varied musical styles of the Americas and integrating their own beloved típico music of Borinquen into the Latin panoply. And so the “Pan-American Orchestra” successfully launched itself into the artistic world of San Juan (and beyond) with a repertoire that included diverse genres such as tango, bolero, samba, merengue, jíbaro, bambuco, beguine, marinera, balada, huapango, jarocho, guajira, corrido, mambo, pachanga, calypso, cha cha cha, and even the twist and rock ‘n’ roll. The success of this open-ended and wide-ranging playbook was almost immediate and led to many engagements in top hotels as well as recording contracts during three decades with several important labels including Cook, Ansonia, Marvela, Tico, Gema and Borinquen. Soon after co-founding the orchestra, Benjamín left and the piano chair was taken over by the prolific composer and arranger Héctor Urdaneta.

-Pablo Yglesias

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