Willie Sotelo, the pianist and musical director of iconic Puerto Rican salsa band El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, died on Friday (June 3) in Puerto Rico. The musician, who was 61 years old, died of “health complications.”
The news of Sotelo’s passing was announced in a press release sent to media and posted on El Gran Combo’s Instagram account.
“Maestro Willie Sotelo, musical director of El Gran Combo, has died due to health complications at 61 years old. His wife Jannette Navarro, his daughter Wilmalie Sotelo, his other relatives and maestro Rafael Ithier and his orchestra companions ask for space to deal with this difficult process and thank all your demonstrations of support and prayers,” read the statement.
According to Puerto Rican daily Primera Hora, Sotelo had cancer and had been hospitalized.
Sotelo’s passing comes as El Gran Combo (whose name literally translates to The Big Combo) was preparing to launch its 60-year anniversary tour, underscoring the band’s resiliency and fandom despite changing trends. The trek is scheduled to begin on June 10-11 in Pennsylvania and Maryland. No changes had been announced at press time.
Sotelo played in multiple salsa and merengue groups in the island before joining El Gran Combo in 2006. At the time, founding bandleader and also pianist Rafael Ithier began to look for a successor to lead the group. Initially recruited as the band’s pianist, Sotelo was eventually promoted to musical director.
“It’s a huge responsibility and a great honor to sit in Don Rafa’s chair, play his instrument, play his music and try to preserve the style and sound,” Sotelo said at the time, according to El Nuevo Día.
Willy Rodriguez, co-founder of the International Salsa Museum, said Sotelo’s legacy would be long remembered.
“As a Musical Director and pianist myself I personally know the important role a musical director plays,” he told Billboard. “Mr. Sotelo was truly a master at his craft and stayed true and respected the sound that Mr. Rafael Ithier and El Gran Combo have created throughout the decades. His musical direction, piano playing and way of being will truly be missed on and off stage but his legacy and spirit will live on forever. We at ISM will make sure of that.”
News on funeral arrangements will be announced soon.