Friday, July 28, 2006

Salsa Pioneer Willie Colon

Miami Herald
Posted on Fri, Jul. 28, 2006

Salsa pioneer still hearkens to a rebel beat


They were rough, untrained kids from the slums, improvising streetwise rhymes, horrifying the musical and social establishment with their vulgarity and menace. They mixed traditional Cuban and Puerto Rican music with rock, funk, R&B, jazz, and a jumble of Latin American genres to come up with a new kind of Latin music that spoke for a new generation of Latinos growing up in the United States.

Before reggaeton, before Latin alternative, there was New York salsa. And one of the men who created it and changed the course of Latin music is Willie Colon, who plays the West Dade club La Covacha Saturday night.

He says it will be his last tour after 43 years of performing. Maybe.

''I had planned to stop touring in November,'' Colon, now 57, said recently from his office in midtown Manhattan. But we've gotten so many calls to please just come here.''

After a lifetime of musical revolution, it's hard to stop.

He was a short skinny kid from the South Bronx raised by his Puerto Rican grandmother because his father was in jail and his mother wasn't much more than a child herself.

Puerto Ricans were the newcomers in a Bronx still full of earlier immigrants, Irish and Italians who might give a dark-skinned Latino kid a ''wood shampoo'' -- a beating -- if he walked down the wrong street.

''You got to remember this was the 1950s and good old American apartheid was in full swing,'' Colon says.


Colon's grandmother worked in a sweatshop, but she managed to buy her 11-year-old grandson a trumpet. Colon started playing on the street with his buddies, passing the hat and picking up enough change to inspire him to continue in music.

By 13, he was playing in a professional wedding band. At 14, he switched to trombone. But he couldn't get an audition for the high school band. The frustration drove him to drop out. ``I became self-righteously indignant and just said screw them. I said I'm gonna make it on my own.''

It was a classic start to what usually turns into a road to nowhere. But for Colon it launched him into what would soon become an incredibly vibrant and creative music scene.

Latin music was about to come out of a fallow period in the mid-1960s. The mambo heyday, cut off from Cuban music and musicians after the revolution of 1959, was over, as was an early-'60s craze for a Latin/funk hybrid called boogaloo. But in the late '60s and early '70s, something new began to percolate: Cuban and Puerto Rican music mixed with jazz, R&B, and rock, with a wild improvisational edge and the driving energy of New York City.

It was called salsa, a term that old school Latin musicians often hated but gave a catchy ring to a style that pushed social and musical boundaries. The civil rights movement was inspiring the Young Lords and a movement for Puerto Rican rights. Black jazz musicians would sit in with the Latin musicians at clubs all over town.

Musically and politically, salsa was hot.


''You could compare it a lot to rap and reggaeton,'' says Colon. ``It was rebellious music. We were watching Martin Luther King walking into Selma and the dogs and water cannons. The music wasn't explicitly political yet, but the music was a magnet that would bring people together.''

Ed Morales, Latin music critic for New York Newsday and author of The Latin Beat, a history of Latin music, says the salsa scene's rough-and-ready vibe spoke to the exploding population of Puerto Ricans in a city that was rapidly becoming a much tougher place.

''It coincided with the formation of these hardcore urban slums,'' Morales says. 'The audience was mainly the people from the barrios. Willie said we invented gangster rap, and he sort of has a point. There's a lot of that transforming the elegant energy of the mambo dance halls to `this is the hood.' ''

Colon quickly became one of salsa's stars, largely because of his partnership with Hector Lavoe, a Puerto Rican country kid with an outsize voice and genius for improvisation. They recorded some of the biggest hits of the genre for Fania Records, the label for the burgeoning genre.

Records like El Malo (The Bad Guy, released when Colon was only 17) and Lo Mato -- Si No Compra Este LP (I'll Kill Him -- If You Don't Buy This Record, with a photo of Colon holding a gun to a man's head) featured a swaggering bad-guy image -- but laced with the substance of Lavoe's gorgeous voice and Colon's gift for musical innovation.


Unfortunately, Lavoe had a drug problem that soon overpowered his talent, and the pair split in the mid-'70s. But Colon became even more successful with his new vocalist, Ruben Blades, a charismatic performer and gifted songwriter. Together they were the Lennon and McCartney of salsa.

Blades' songs like Plastico and Pedro Navaja, from their 1978 album Siembra, the bestselling salsa album of all time, had a seriousness, political consciousness and lyrical and musical complexity that make them classics of Latin music.

But as record companies turned their attention to the new genre, they began emphasizing radio hits instead of innovation, and pretty faces over skilled bandleaders.

''When the corporations came in, it naturally turned into something else, because they need formula and dependable product,'' Colon says. ``The genius of salsa was the freedom -- there were no rules.''

Reggaetoneros often claim early salsa artists as their godfathers in speaking for the streets, even as many critics and old school Latin music lovers deride what they call reggaeton's simplistic rhythm and violent, vulgar lyrics. But Colon sees a connection between the scene he grew up with and reggaeton's young guns.

''[Reggaeton] came in under the radar because it came from the streets,'' he says. ``I identify a lot with it. The beat is original and funky, and some of the things they say are worth repeating.''

And he thinks reggaeton shares early salsa's willingness to break with musical forms. ``It might have been said about some reggaeton beats that it's wrong you can't do this. But if it feels good musically, you do it.''

The popularity of reggaeton may be reawakening interest in classic salsa, which has become hot among young people in Puerto Rico. There's a buzz around Emusica's re-release of Fania Records classics. And Daddy Yankee sports a Willie Colon T-shirt and a social message in his latest video, Gangsta Zone, with Snoop Dog, playing on MTV.

Colon warns that vitality might not last long. ``After the corporations get a good grip on reggaeton, they should be able to sanitize it and kill it also.''

Colon's career took a downturn after he and Blades split up in 1982, and as record labels focused on the formulaic ''salsa romantica'' style of the 1980s. His last big hit was 1989's El Gran Varon. A groundbreaking song about a gay man who gets AIDS, it tackled taboo subjects in the Latino community.


Though he has never stopped making music, in the last 15 years Colon has focused more on politics and community activism. He ran (unsuccessfully) for Congress in 1993, and serves on the boards of a variety of Latino, arts and political organizations. He heads New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Latin Media Entertainment Commission, and helped bring the Latin Grammys to New York this November.

Still, Colon hasn't quit music yet. He hopes to release an album of new songs this fall, spanning the gamut from roots music to social commentary, and enjoys the idea that new technology will allow him to record and release it without the support of a major label.

And he's looking forward to performing Saturday night in South Florida.

He will be the oldest guy onstage with a group of hot younger players, but it doesn't phase him. ''I really love that hour and a half that I get up on the stage,'' says Latin music's original hoodlum.

``I'm 57 years old now -- you're not gonna rattle me. So I do what I want to do.''

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