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Wanted: For Being Hip—Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe and the Birth of Salsa

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Craft Recordings has brought back music from Fania Records, with which Colon was intimately associated from the very beginning of his career
It may require some effort to imagine that there were once no Latin Grammy awards. The albums reviewed here truly appeared in a different world. Until 1970, there was, with one brief exception, no systematic attempt to compute the size of the Latino population of the United States. The first effort did not go well. The Bureau of the Census ultimately invented the term "Hispanic," to aggregate people of different nationalities and ethnicities, although calling, for example, someone from Ecuador resident in the United States "Hispanic" may be cause for some argument. Through indirect means, the Bureau guessed that the relevant population in the United States then was around nine million. By contrast, in 2022, the Hispanic population of the state of Texas alone was about twelve million people. Today, there are about sixty-two million "Hispanics" in the United States.

Willie Colon and Héctor Lavoe were Puerto Rican musicians, nominally Hispanic. Their music was not exactly intended for listening—it had a different focus. In fact, the cover of La Gran Fuga—The Great Escape (Fania Records, 1971) warned that they were "wanted" for dancing, not listening and it was just as well. Outside of the Bronx and Spanish Harlem in New York City, not many people would have understood what they were singing anyway..

Given the enormous influence that Afro-Caribbean music has had on jazz in the United States, the story is richly ironic. Willie Colón began as an instrumentalist, on trumpet and trombone. Hector Lavoe, born on the Island of Puerto Rico, recorded with Colón as a singer. For better or worse, he eventually went off on his own. Of the two, Colón has had an easier time of it, albeit not without unusual political and professional detours—from an ostensible outlaw, with the moniker "Original Gangster." Born in the South Bronx, a "Nuyorican" (i.e., Puerto Rican born in New York City), Colón still tours, at age seventy-three. He is synonymous with salsa music and dancing, and has a side gig as a Lieutenant in the West Chester (NY) County Department of Public Safety. Whether or not he is more significant as a jazz musician or a public figure is an open question. About his influence and wide-ranging popularity in the Latin Community, there is no argument.

Lavoe was enormously successful, known as "The Singer," and even had a command performance (literally) with Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. His personal life, marred by substance abuse, took numerous twists and turns, first destroying his talent, and then his life, at the premature age of forty-six. He too was closely identified with salsa and was the subject of a film, El Cantante (2006) with Jennifer López. Of the two, Lavoe was more closely identified with the Island—he was the hick kid who comes to the Big City. Arguably, today at least, he is now better known to Hispanophones than Colón. Colón, on the other hand, has a legitimate claim to Latin jazz that Lavoe never really did—he performed at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival numerous times.

So, both these recordings are the product of a vastly different time, and of a sea change in American society, one which has occurred over the last fifty years.

The Great Escape (Fania Records, 1971) is probably going to be of more interest to readers of All About Jazz. It is an amusing production, down to the poster reprint of the post office Wanted cover, "Armed with Trombone and Considered Dangerous." If it is tumbao, the montuno and the clave that someone is really listening for, this is the place. Not to mention the distinctive trombone choir that decorates the rocking choruses. There is no use trying to pick favorites from a classic but starting with "Colombia" as an instrumental and "No Cambiaré" for what Colón heard in Lavoe's singing ("squealing" as the album jacket hopelessly puns) are likely points of departure. Or "Barrunto," which brings everything into play with a very distinctive final verse that sounds as if the soul group The Delfonics inspired it. Not to mention "Abuelita" written by both Colón and Lavoe, which dispenses a grandmother's advice to the lovelorn. All the music was hip and fun and even tongue-in-cheek; no surprise it caught on with a wider audience, whether it was "really" jazz or not, or for that matter, gangster or not.

The story behind Vigilante is no less intriguing. This was to be the final collaborative effort between Colón and Lavoe. Originally intended as the soundtrack of a similarly named movie, it is quite different from The Great Escape. The film featured Colón in a cameo—Colón is sensational as a punk when he firehoses a service station owner with gasoline. But unless B movies of the early 1980s are particularly appealing, only true devotees will be interested. The music, especially "Triste y Vacía" has its moments, and it succeeded in putting Lavoe back on the charts after he had suffered a series of personal and professional misfortunes. Again, devoted fans of the genre may really enjoy it, although the soundtrack, with strings, is quite evocative of another time and place.

Craft Recordings has brought back music from Fania Records, with which Colón was intimately associated from the very beginning of his career. Both vinyl albums make for particularly good listening and the t-shirts, posters, and other tchotchkes available can give retro fans the experience of full immersion. Both are important sonic documents in the history of salsa and are nice to have at party time.

Tracks and Personnel

La Gran Fuga—The Great Escape

Tracks: Ghana'e; Pa' Colombia; No Cambiare; Sigue Feliz; Barrunto; Abuelita; Panamena; Cancion Para Mi Suegra

Personnel: Milton Cardona: Conga; Willie Colon: Trombone; Louie Romero: timbales; Hector Lavoe: vocals; Jose Mangual:Bongo; Joe Torres: Piano; Santi Gonzalez: Bass; Willie Campbell: Trombone.

Vigilante

Tracks: Triste y Vacia; Vigilante; Juanito Alimana; Pase La Noche Fumando.

Personnel: Hector Lavoe: Vocal; Willie Colon: Vocal and Trombone; Timbales: Johnny Almendra;Bongo: Johnny Delgado; Strings: Harold Kohon Strings Ensemble; Piano: Joe Torres; Trombones: Leopoldo Pineda, Lewis Kahn, Luis Lopez; Conga: Milton Cardona; Chorus: Gabriel Arnon, Doris Eugenio, Graciela Carriqui, Willie Colon; Milton Cardona; Saxophone: Morris Goldberg; Bass: Salvador Cuevas; Guitar: George Wodenius; Cuatro: Yomo Toro; Maracas: Jorge Maldonado, Guairo.

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