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Roberto Roena, legendary salsa musician, dies at age 81

The former member of the Fania All Stars group “died in the arms of his two daughters," his family said.

Legendary salsa musician Roberto Roena died Thursday night, a spokesman for his family confirmed Friday.

The Latino musician was 81.

Roena was best known for being one of the original members of Puerto Rico's renowned salsa orchestra "El Gran Combo," as well as the founding member of the “Cortijo y su Combo” orchestra and the "Roberto Roena y Su Apollo Sound" music group.

In 1970, he recorded his first album with Fania, the leading salsa music record label at the time, after joining the widely successful Fania All Stars orchestra, which showcased some of the label's most talented musicians.

Image:  Roberto Roena arrives at a benefit concert to honor the life and music of Tito Puente April 21, 2003 at Lincoln Center in New York City.
Roberto Roena arrives at a benefit concert to honor the life and music of Tito Puente on April 21, 2003, at the Lincoln Center in New York City. Scott Gries / Getty Images

For decades, Roena captivated audiences with his bongó and other percussion instruments, as well as with his salsa dance moves.

Andrés Waldemar, singer of the “Roberto Roena y Su Apollo Sound” orchestra and a spokesman for the family, said in a statement that Roena "died in the arms of his two daughters Brenda and Gladys and Waldemar" after having started a multi-city tour in the United States last August.

"It has been a heavy blow to his children, grandchildren, friends and family in general. Roberto taught us many things, but he never prepared us for this," Waldemar stated in Spanish. "The world is shocked, there is a void and a mourning in the music world."

The family statement did not disclose the cause of death.

Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declared a day of mourning to commemorate the death of the legendary Puerto Rican salsa singer and musical director. On Monday, flags in all public buildings on the island will fly at half mast.

“The departure of the great Mr. Bongó is an irreparable loss for Puerto Rico and the entire world, but above all for salsa lovers. Iconic songs like 'El Escapular', 'Cui Cui', 'Mi Desengaño', 'Marejada Feliz', and many more transcended generations. His musical legacy of more than 60 years will remain with us," Pierluisi said in a statement in Spanish Saturday.

"My sincere condolences to all his family, loved ones and colleagues in the artistic milieu," he added.

Roena was born in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, in 1940. As a child, he performed with his brothers on the Puerto Rican television show "La Taberna India," where salsa orchestra leader Rafael Cortijo discovered him and recruited him to join his band in the late 1950s.

The “Cortijo y su Combo” band later became known as “El Gran Combo." Roena left the orchestra in 1969 and founded the “Roberto Roena y Su Apollo Sound,” which became known as one of the best salsa music bands in Puerto Rico, as well as among fans in the mainland United States and Latin America.

Waldemar said the family is working to arrange funeral services. The details will later be made public, he said.

"Roberto was a man of the people, he loved his people, and we will respect his will," he said. "Puerto Rico will have the opportunity to pay him respect by giving him the last goodbye and following all the health protocols established by the pandemic."

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