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Rafael Cortijo (January 11, 1928 – October 3, 1982), was a Puerto Rican musician, orchestra leader, and composer.
As a child, Cortijo became interested in Caribbean music and enjoyed the works of some of the era's most successful Plena music musicians. Throughout his life, he had a chance to meet and work with some of them, and learned how to make his own congas and pleneras, the handheld drums used in plena music.
Salsa composer and singer Ismael Rivera met Cortijo when both were youngsters, as they both grew up in the Villa Palmeras neighborhood of Santurce; they became lifelong friends. Rivera was impressed with Cortijo's conga-playing skills and asked him to join his orchestra, which played at Fiestas patronales all over Puerto Rico.
After playing in Rivera's orchestra, Cortijo wanted to have an orchestra of his own, and play the music he first loved: plena. So he left Rivera's orchestra and formed his own, plena-only orchestra, complete with trumpet and saxophone players.
Rafael Cortijo became well known across Latin America. He attributed his success to the sound of his percussion and because, according to Cortijo himself, African music was known worldwide. Cortijo was also a member of the Conjunto Monterrey, based in Monterrey, Mexico.
By 1954, Cortijo was a member of "El Combo". El Combo's leader, Mario Roman, retired soon after. As a member of El Combo, Cortijo met lifelong friends Sammy Ayala and Rafael Ithier, who considered Cortijo one of his idols. Ismael Rivera, then the lead singer of Lito Peña's Orquesta Panamericana, joined Cortijo's orchestra in 1955. From there on and until 1960, Cortijo and his orchestra played live on Puerto Rican television shows (sometime in the 60s, they became the house band at "La Taberna India").
The orchestra virtually disbanded in 1962 when Ismael Rivera was arrested for drug possession in Panama. According to later reports, various band members concealed illegal drug shipments regularly since they were rarely intervened with at Customs; in this particular occasion an inspection was indeed made, and Rivera willingly took the bulk of the rap for the entire group (including Cortijo, who was deeply affected by Rivera's plea and regretted it through the rest of his life). Rafael Ithier and other bandmates went on to found Puerto Rico's salsa group, "El Gran Combo".
Later on, Cortijo created another orchestra, "El Bonche", where he was joined by his adopted niece, Fe Cortijo. Fe then became a well known singer on her own. Marvin Santiago became part of Cortijo's lineup around this time.
Cortijo became bankrupt after this; the problems that he and Rivera faced took a toll on Cortijo's financial situation, and he and Rivera were not seen with good eyes by many Puerto Ricans due to their legal problems.
Cortijo and Rivera went on to live in New York. Cortijo, however, soon returned to Puerto Rico, where the composer, Tite Curet Alonso, forged a friendship with the impoverished star and helped Cortijo produce a comeback album.
In 1974, Coco Records reunited all the former members of the "Combo" orchestra for a one-time-only concert and a subsequent studio recording issued a few months afterwards.