Merengue Crew Grupomania Stays On Winning Streak

Months after its March release, the band is still pushing its Universal label debut, "Grupomania 2050," nominated for best merengue album in the upcoming Latin Grammys. "Those guys are warriors," say

It's a Friday morning at Miami's Airport Hilton, and the members of merengue crew Grupomania have just arrived from Puerto Rico. After dumping their belongings in a hotel room, they are in the lobby hamming it up for the cameras and entertaining reporters, all business despite being sleepless from a show the previous night.

That afternoon they will tape an appearance on Sabado Gigante, the leading Latin American variety show. Then it's back to Puerto Rico, where the group will be on stage before the end of the night. Just another day in the life of "la mania," one of Universal Music Latino's latest tropical acquisitions. "Those guys are warriors," says Miami-based promoter/studio owner Pablo Casals, an ardent admirer of the foursome.

Months after its March release, the band is still pushing its Universal label debut, "Grupomania 2050," nominated for best merengue album in the upcoming Latin Grammys. Sales have topped 110,000, according to Universal Music Latino's VP for A&R Eddie Fernandez, who signed the band. He expects the disc to reach Latin platinum (U.S. shipments of 200,000 copies, as certified by the Recording Industry Association of America) by the holidays. "They're a well-established group," Fernandez says. "They have nothing to prove to us. They're like a Backstreet Boys from Puerto Rico."

The album cracked the top-10 of The Billboard Latin 50 in April and hit No. 1 on the tropical/salsa album chart. It is the fifth time the band has hit the Latin 50 since 1996, more than any other merengue group. But after a split from its previous label, Sony Discos, the band's success is bittersweet.

"We cried when we left Sony," admits bandleader Hector "Banchy" Serrano, who says certain members of the label's marketing team had become "like family." The band ended its fruitful, five-year stint with the label late last year amid contract talks, when Sony Discos sold the CD to Universal and released the well-regarded act that sired merengue sensation Elvis Crespo.

"When the problem started, [Sony Discos] said [it] didn't like the album," Serrano says. "We spent $54,000 making it. Then [the company] turned around and sold it for half a million dollars. If it was no good, how did [the company] fetch that kind of a price for it?"

Sony Discos chairman Oscar Llord did not return a phone call to his office requesting comment. The label's corporate parent, Sony Music Entertainment, said through a New York spokeswoman that it does not discuss relationships with its artists in the media.

Universal is happy with its end of the bargain, Fernandez gladly affirms. "We paid that much because we believe in the group," he says. "We won't make money on the first album -- I can tell you that -- but at least we bought a name."

Grupomania has defended that name valiantly since it was founded in 1992 by Serrano, 27, and brother Oscar, 28, along with singer Alfred Cotto, also 28. The Serrano brothers, part of a musical family from Cupey, Puerto Rico, won a high-school talent show singing a Jose Jose torch song to classmates, but the rambunctious brothers went uptempo when they decided to launch a merengue outfit.

"It was Banchy's idea," says Oscar, a charismatic frontman who handles much of the songwriting chores. "It was a combination of tastes. I was a big fan of the Kenton brothers. He liked Los Hermanos Rosario -- so it was a combination of both acts."

To the surprise of many in the industry, the Serrano brothers pulled off their seemingly audacious vision. They combined the flashy choreography of Los Kenton, a top Dominican act of the late-1980s, and the much-revered Hermanos Rosario, pioneers of the merengue bomba sound that came to dominate the genre this past decade.

With the notable exception of Los Sabrosos de Merengue, Grupomania became one of the first truly Puerto Rican acts to thrive on the competitive, Dominican-dominated merengue circuit. Other successful Puerto Rico-based acts at the time, such as Zona Roja, were assembled and managed by Dominican artists and bandleaders.

Grupomania singer Reynaldo "El Chino" Reyes fronted for Zona Roja in the early 1990s. Reyes, Crespo's replacement in the quartet, contrasts the two acts. "Zona Roja just took off from the beginning," Reyes says. "Before we knew it, we were touring and traveling to lots of countries."

By 1994, the band scored its first island-wide smash with "Exploto el Bombazo," its last small-label release and one that introduced Crespo to a wider public. Like Puerto Rican prize-fighter Felix "Tito" Trinidad, a hometown chum of the Serrano brothers, Grupomania has defended its crown as the top-selling merengue band in the U.S. market, despite an onslaught of merengue-bomba wannabes in the mid-1990s.

Even Crespo was reluctant to leave the act for a shot at solo stardom. "Leaving a group like Grupomania, one that works every day, was a very hard decision," Crespo told Billboard in 1999.

Grupomania members say they've patched relations with Crespo, who originally intended to record his trademark hits "Suavemente" and "Tu Sonrisa" with his old bandmates. The band has withstood other bouts of adversity, too, such as the 1999 arrest of Cotto on drug charges. The band reinstated Cotto, an electric dancer onstage and a cheerful presence on the tour bus, after he was acquitted.

"They're a family," Casals says. "They're all brothers. They're all equals. And they stand by each other in the rough moments."

Casals, who hails from merengue's citadel in the Dominican Republic, calls Grupomania "one of the most perfect" merengue acts he's ever witnessed. With a well-oiled band, loyal fans in Puerto Rico and overseas, and unmatched stage charisma, he predicts more success in the future.

"That group is here to stay," he says. "They're going to be like (salsa icons) El Gran Combo, but in merengue."