After catching the act, the Puerto Rican musician and bandleader Rafael Cortijo invited Mr. Roena, who was only 15 or 16, to join his orchestra, Cortijo y Su Combo, as a dancer and chorus member. Mr. Cortijo, a percussionist, began schooling him on the bongos, and soon Roberto was part of the band.
When Mr. Cortijo’s group dissolved, Mr. Roena became part of the salsa orchestra El Gran Combo, recording and touring internationally. It was in 1969 that he formed Apollo Sound — named, some versions of the tale go, because its first rehearsal coincided with the launch of Apollo 11, the first mission to land astronauts on the moon. The group almost had a different name.
“First I wanted to put Apollo 12, because we were 12 musicians,” he told La Opinión in 1996, “but then I thought, if the United States launches Apollo 13, we are obsolete.”
With Apollo Sound, Mr. Roena took salsa to a new level of sophistication, working in two or even three trumpets and a complex rhythm section to create a propulsive sound that drew on the music of jazz-rock groups like Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears. Its live shows were wild, with Mr. Roena setting the tone, and its albums for Fania were steady sellers.
In an interview with The Times in 2014, when he was part of the lineup for a Fania Records tribute concert in Central Park, Mr. Roena credited the label’s founders, Johnny Pacheco and Jerry Masucci, with creating the salsa phenomenon.
“Jerry and Johnny gave you the freedom to do your own thing,” he said. “They allowed the musicians to express themselves the way we wanted, and that led to a lot of hit records.”