July 28, 2006

O. G.:

Salsa pioneer still hearkens to a rebel beat (JORDAN LEVIN, 7/28/06, MiamiHerald.com)

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. [...]

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.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 28, 2006 7:14 AM
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