La Sonora Ponceña - Biography
By J Poet
La Sonora Ponceña is the most important salsa band to ever emerge from Puerto Rico. Their style of music is closer to traditional Cuban son than most salsa bands and their jazzy improvisations have kept them vital throughout their 55-year (and counting) history.
Sonora Ponceña evolved out of a group started by Enrique “Quique” Lucca Caraballo in 1944, the Conjunto Internacional; they played traditional music with guitar and percussion. Lucca loved the music of the Sonora Matancera, the great Cuban band founded by Valentin Cané in the early 30s and famous for introducing the world to Celia Cruz. When Lucca decided to use Matancera’s template – four trumpets, piano and even more percussion - Conjunto Internacional became La Sonora Ponceña, named after Lucca’s hometown of Ponce. They made their first appearance using the new name in 1954.
As the band was defining its sound, Lucca sired Enrique “Papo” Lucca Jr. By the time he was 11, Papo Lucca was playing piano in the band and contributing innovative arrangements. The band made a couple of 78s in 1958, including “Smoke Mambo,” a tune made famous by Sonora Matancera. It was Papo Lucca’s first recorded piano solo and left the producers and engineers of the date staring in stunned disbelief. The band was already headlining dates throughout Puerto Rico, but they wanted more. In 1960 they began dividing their time between New York and Puerto Rico, and soon set the city ablaze with their unique interpretations of mambos, guarachas, and boleros. Between gigs, Papo Lucca went to Puerto Rico’s Conservatory of Music taking degrees in piano, composition and arranging.
In 1968 Quique Lucca left the band, handing over the reigns to his son Papo who was then 22. The band’s first album date for Fania produced the classic Hacheros Pa’ Un Palo (1968 Fania, 2007 Fania) and featured the hits “Paño de Lágrimas,” “Franqueza,” and the title track. The title track of Fuego En El 23 (1969 Inca) was another hit and the band was off and running. Their early successes include Algo de Locura (1971 Inca, 2007 Fania), Navidad Criolla (1971 Inca, 2007 Fania), Desde Puerto Rico A Nueva York (1972 Inca, 2007 Fania) with the hits “Prende el Fogón,” “Tumba la Caña, Jibarito,” and “La Puerta Está Abierta,” Sonora Ponceña (1972 Inca, 2007 Fania), Sabor Sureño (1974 Inca, 2007 Fania) with a smoking cover of Ray Baretto’s “Las Lenguas,” Tiene Pimienta (1975 Inca, 2007 Fania), and Conquista Musical (1976 Inca) which lived up to its name with the hits “Nanara Cai,” “El Pío Pío,” and “Bomba Carambomba.” The album also includes one of the first appearances by future superstar Rubén Blades on backing vocals.
Many of the best Latin jazz players passed through the band’s ranks during their long history, but the music always remained top notch. Other strong contenders include El Gigante Del Sur (1977 1978 Inca, 2000 Fania), La Orquesta De Mi Tierra (1978 Inca, 2000 Fania) with the hit “La Orquesta De Mi Tierra,” Explorando (1978 Inca, 2000 Fania), and Energized (1979 Inca, 1996 Fania), a greatest hits collection with “El Pío Pío,” “Nanara Caí,” “Canto al Amor,” and “Boranda.”
La Ceiba (1979 Inca, 2006 Fania), a collaboration with Celia Cruz, showed the band at its best, as did Unchained Force (1980 Inca, 2006 Fania) with the hits “Mi Lindo Yambú,” “Pensándolo Bien,” “Huracán,” and “Remembranzas.” The hits kept coming with Determination (1982 Inca, 2006 Fania), Future (1984 Inca, 2006 Fania) Jubilee (1986 Inca, 2006 Fania), On The Right Track (1988 Inca, 2006 Fania) with the salsa romantico hit “Sigo Pensando en Tí,” Into The 90s (1990 Inca, 2006 Fania), Guerreando (1992 Inca, 2006 Fania) and Birthday Party (1993 Inca, 2006 Fania) cut to celebrate the band’s 40s year in the business. They marked the date with sold out shows at Puerto Rico’s Estadio Juan Ramón Lubriel, and Madison Square Garden. Soul of Puerto Rico (1993 Fania) showcased the band’s hits from the 80s and early 90s including “Canción,” “Sigo Pensando en Tí,” “Saoco,” “No Bebo Más” and “Abanacué,”
Sonora Ponceña moved to the majors for On Target (1998 Sony Latino, 2007 Fania), and the two CD live set 45 Aniversario (2000 Sony International), which featured many of the band’s illustrious alumni back on stage for one night only. Back To The Road (2004 Pianissimo) proves the band is still in top form with the percussion heavy “Con tres tambores batá,” a salsa reinvention of “Mack The Knife,” and the jazzy “Nica’s Dream.” The band celebrated their 50th birthday with two live CD/DVD releases 50 Aniversario, En Vivo (2007 Pianissimo) and 50 Aniversario, En Vivo Vol. II (2007 Pianissimo).