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Band leader, composer and percussionist Rafael “Rafa” Cortijo Verdejo (December 11, 1928 – October 3, 1982) made indigenous Boricuan music a central feature of his sound starting in the 1950s, leaving a deep mark on the future development of Puerto Rican music and salsa in particular. Cortijo and his Combo did this through their early introduction of various robust rhythmic patterns that were not widely known previously, as well as their utilization of intense call and response structures (including distinctive African-based vocal timbres), plus their prominent placement of the rhythm section out in front of the band. More innovative still was the fact that Cortijo’s percussion setup utilized the Cuban dance band instrumentation of timbales, congas, cowbell and bongos to play Afro-Puerto Rican bomba and plena rhythms in addition to the mambo, calypso, bolero, and guaracha. Add to that the combo’s fresh and creative arrangements for brass and piano, which served to strengthen and enhance the infectious melodies and rhythms of the band, and you have a seemingly unbeatable formula for driving a dance-hungry public wild, not only on their home turf but also everywhere abroad from North to South America and the Caribbean.

-Pablo Yglesias

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