Direct from San Juan 

The East Bay debut of Roberto Roena Y Su Apollo Sound at Kimball's Carnival Puerto Rican celebration

When the San Francisco Giants retired the number of Puerto Rican baseball great and Fairfield resident Orlando Cepeda, they told him they would try to grant any wishes he might have for the occasion. He asked that close family be flown in from the island and for Roberto Roena y su Apollo Sound to perform. It all came true on a Sunday in July of 1999 when Cepeda's number 30 was retired and the salsa music of Roena rang throughout 3Com Park. "Orlando is my compadre," says Roena in Spanish from his home in Santurce, PR. "We've known each other since we were kids. I started off as a baseball player but we never played together. Es un gran amigo! "

This weekend Roberto Roena y su Apollo Sound make their East Bay debut with a belated Día de San Juan celebration as part of a three-night engagement at Kimball's Carnival. El Día de San Juan is the holy day for St. John the Baptist. Throughout Latin America and Mexico it takes on deep folk and religious meaning with the belief that all water is made holy on June 24.

Henry Royal, manager of Kimball's Carnival, is hoping Roena's appearance will also bring his struggling Latin dance emporium some blessings. Since opening earlier this year, the former warehouse has hosted shows by the likes of Pete Escovedo, Sierra Maestra, and Paulito FG, but a dwindling economy has put the nightclub business in recession.

"I took it on the chin a few weeks ago when the Cuban band La Charanga Habanera canceled on me," says Royal. "It's been slow but I've got a summer full of great bands coming through, like Ricardo Lemvo y su Makina Loca and Larry Harlow. I just hope people will support this kind of music--especially a living legend like Roberto Roena."

The legendary bongo player and one-time Fania All Star has been playing around the Bay Area since the 1970s with the group he named after the first Apollo space mission. Known as the "Merry Prankster of Salsa," the rail-thin, mocha-skinned drummer-bandleader was dyeing his hair different colors years before it became fashionable.

Roena is also a superb dancer. His band, with its brass-heavy sound and driving percussion, made him a star, but it was his dancing that attracted the attention of bandleader Rafael Cortijo, who put Roena on the bandstand as a teenager in the 1950s.

"I used to dance on a television show--La Taberna India--that Cortijo was on," recalls Roena. "He saw something in me and started teaching me how to play all the percussion instruments. Bongo became my instrument, but when we played the traditional bomba y plena with the band I usually played conga or timbales."

It was Cortijo's band that helped lay the framework for modern-day salsa dance music. Musicians such as Roena, Rafael Ithier (who leads El Gran Combo), and singer Ismael Rivera inspired a scene that, coupled with the contributions of Johnny Pacheco and Willie Colon in NYC, got chopped up into a crazy musical mix that Fania Records cofounder Jerry Masucci dubbed "salsa."

This weekend's belated Día de San Juan celebration is also a way to acknowledge the contributions of Puerto Ricans to US society. A strong independence movement still exists on the island, and the strength and individuality of its culture seem to make it a nation all its own, yet the island is still plagued with poverty and urban ills, not to mention the military presence in Vieques. St. John the Baptist is the patron saint of boricuas (the indigenous name for Puerto Ricans) and thus a great source of hope.

"On that day se llena la playa (the beaches get full) and at midnight between the 23rd and 24th the whole world jumps in the water," enthuses Roena. "There's music everywhere. This Día de San Juan I'm playing with an all-star band called El Gran Combo del Ayer with Andy Montañez and Gilberto Santa Rosa. But I look forward to this show in Oakland and plan to give the people what they want!"


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