Willie Colón: Salsa is an Open Concept
Frank J. Oteri: Last year was the 30th anniversary of Siembra, which takes the whole synthesis of different musics to an even more sophisticated level. It’s now acknowledged as one of the landmark salsa records, indeed, a landmark record period. Once again, it’s also a wildly experimental record. At one point it sounds like Joe Torres is playing inside the piano, and all through it you’ve got pre-recorded sounds going on, including police sirens and fake news radio broadcasts. But one of the most amazing things for me is the opening of the first track on that record, “Plastico.” You’ve got this very mainstream ’70s-sounding disco groove going, but then it gradually metrically modulates into a salsa. Once again, like with “Calle Luna Calle Sol,” you’ve done this to serve the lyrics which tell the story of this very materialistic woman, but nevertheless it’s an extraordinary rhythmic juxtaposition and it goes way beyond the pan-Latin thing you were describing as salsa. Now your palate is all music.
Willie Colón: Right, right. Well, the Blades-Colón collaboration was pretty amazing, you know. His lyrics were inspirational, and he had a good grasp for pretty nice chord changes and melodies; he wrote really interesting stuff. And the stuff that we did together, I think, is much greater than anything we’ve each done on our own. Even though, he’s done some pretty great records, and I’ve done some good records. But that collaboration was pretty much the critical mass, just before this thing would just totally blow up, because it went further than just a hit song. It became almost a movement. People became so inspired by the sound, the lyrics. We got this pan-Latin kind of thing going which later on we exploited a little, and we got even more political around it. But at the beginning, it was just a pan-Latin idea and it started from the chassis of the thing. I mean, it wasn’t something we just added on, it was just built and constructed that way. It’s like Close Encounters: the guy that built the thing out of mud; it was a very organic, natural kind of thing. If you plan to try to do something like that, I don’t think you could do it.
FJO: The other thing I find so interesting about that record and the collaboration with Ruben Blades is that on all the records with Hector LaVoe, it was always clear that you were the leader. He wrote a few of the songs, but most of them were yours. The stuff with Ruben was the first time that you shared the creative ownership of the material. So what was that like to go into a relationship where you relinquished a significant amount of control?
WC: It was very difficult. My partnership with Ruben was very stormy because we come from different sides of the tracks. I was a guy with holes in my shoes and cardboard, and I had some arcane code of honor. And he’s basically a college grad that decided not to finish law school. Sometimes I felt like he was a tourist in my ghetto, you know. But he was able to express himself in ways that allowed us—me—to communicate to the rest of Latin America in an important way. So I was willing to give up my total authority and collaborate with him. I knew what we were doing was important and that what he brought was important, although he had gone to a lot of other people and was not able to get the time of day. There was nobody else. I was the only guy who was really crazy enough to say, “O.K., let’s try it.” He was writing songs with eight verses. Ray Barretto just wants to wait, “When do I start banging out my conga solo?” But I had been wanting to write longer stories and different chord structures even with Hector, like when I wrote “Abuelita.” I wanted to bring in the cycle of fifths more and stop just playing one-four-five and tonic and dominant. I wanted more subtleties. Ruben was sophisticated and subtle at the same time. He had a really slick way of writing and I could appreciate that and I thought that some of the stuff was really pretty.
FJO: It’s interesting that after that experience you became the lead singer in your own band for the first time.
WC: Well, I needed that independence after Hector and all of the fights we went through, and then after going with Ruben, which after awhile was like the guy in Monty Python, the giant with the two heads—I want to here, you want to go there, everything has to be put up to a vote. I knew that eventually my relationship with Ruben wasn’t going to last, because he was headed somewhere else. So I decided to start singing. And at the beginning I almost got stoned to death a couple of times. People just didn’t want to hear it. Where’s Hector? Where’s Ruben? I wasn’t a great singer either. As a matter of fact, in 1973 at a White Castle, I got into a really bad fight. My face got busted up and I was singing with a broken nose until about 1980, probably 1986. They fixed the jaw and everything, but the nose never really opened up again. And I had a deviated septum. I see stuff on YouTube sometimes that makes my socks go up and down. But they were hits. They became hits also. I think songs like “Juancito” and “Sin Poderte Hablar” were different and people liked them.
FJO: You’re humble in saying that you weren’t a great singer. You had been singing coro all along and rhythmically, you’ve always been completely in the pocket. And, even on that first record where you sang everything yourself, Solo, there’s some really challenging material and you pull it off, like that opening tune, “Nueva York”; your vocals really groove on that.
WC: Thanks. That was really audacious, man. Even that melody, it’s so nuts but that was fun. And I spent more money [on it] than [ever]. I think an album used to cost maybe $20,000 to do in those days. And that was the high end. I must have spent $175 (K) on that Solo album. And Jerry went along with it. We have French horns, dancing girls, feathers, everything but the kitchen sink in that damn record. But after I listened to the whole record, I said, “There’s something missing.” I always do this. “We need one more song.” So I wrote “Sin Poderete Hablar” and we only had enough money for a flugelhorn and a flute. All the other things have 26 musicians, this has only flugelhorn and flute, and it became the big hit. It was the song that saved the album. Jerry was not crazy about that after he paid for all of the other stuff. He wanted to kill me at the end.
That happened also with Top Secrets. “El Gran Varón” was not [originally] on the album. At the end, I listened to the album and I said I need another song, and I came up with that one.
FJO: On Top Secrets you also put a synthesizer into the band; that’s not an instrument that had really been used on salsa records.
WC: No, but the first time that we used synthesizer was on El Baquiné de Angelitos Negros. We used the Moog. It’s just basically growling, you know. There are no strings, but we used the synth on “El Gran Varón.” We even did another album before that called Especial No. 5 where the brass section was one trombone, one sax, and a guy trying to do the bone section on a synth, with one of those things that you blow through. It was a Yamaha synthesizer. What was that called? A D-1? I forget. You’d blow through it for the attack, so that it’d sound like a horn section and that worked kind of O.K., but you could never do it if you didn’t have this guy to play it. So that wasn’t going to work. But I felt that the synthesizer was important. I also did two disco records, She Don’t Know I’m Alive and Set Fire to Me.
FJO: I don’t know those.
WC: You gotta hear them, man. These things got on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. The kids were going, “I like the beat.” Whatever. We got up to number 20 on Top of the Pops in England, and we showed up [there]. So we go to be on the show, and they said “O.K., where’s your tracks?” I said, “We don’t do tracks. We play live.” She says, “You have to do tracks.” “We don’t have a track.” She says, “O.K., goodbye.” We flew all the way to England and got sent home.
FJO: They wouldn’t let you guys play live?
WC: No. And I don’t know how to do tracks. That was the end of my Top of the Pops career in England.
FJO: I’d also like to talk a little bit about Tiempo Pa’ Matar. That was the first record of yours I ever heard, which is a strange place in your discography to begin, I suppose. The strangest thing about that record is that you have a female coro section. On Latin records, there are usually only men singing the coro. Putting women in the mix totally changes the sound world.
WC: That was part of my goal. There’s a lot of classism in music. Part of the thing that I did with Ruben and with my own productions, with the strings and the sweetening, was to try to get salsa played on what they used to call Classe A radio. These are the radio stations that would play Julio Iglesias or Camilo Sesto, but they would never play that jungle music, you know. Once with Ruben’s lyrics and some strings on it, we broke through and made Class A radio, which was a big plus. And again, for an album I did after me and Ruben broke up called Fantasmas which I did a lot of Brazilian stuff on. And in Venezuela alone we sold about 350,000 albums, which was unheard of in those days. It was like these new people discovered a salsa that’s decent enough for a white-collar audience. On Tiempo Pa’ Matar we continued that. But I decided to go back and put a little more teeth into it. It was my goodbye album to Fania. My very next album was Criollo with RCA. Have you heard that one?
FJO: No. I need to track that down.
WC: Good luck finding one.
FJO: I know. That’s the problem. All the Fania stuff you can still find, but the RCA stuff is very hard to find.
WC: Like I said, the RCA thing was a nightmare. I wound up with a bunch of right wing Cubans in the company, and there was one little Mexican guy with a handle bar moustache who reminded me of Jerry Colonna. And they’d tell me stuff like, “Make music to make people dance and be happy. What do you want to write that other music for?” The Cuban guys say, “You gotta do like Lecuona’s biggest hits. And I say, “Wait a minute. You guys just paid a ton of money for my contract. Don’t you know what I do? Let me do what I do.” They used to check on my repertoire and all that. Anyway, I bring them the album when it’s finished, and we’re sitting listening to it. I’m sitting in front of the president’s chair. The guy’s named Mario De La Higuera. I did a song called “La Era Nuclear,” the Nuclear Age. And another one was called “El General.” It was a satire about Augusto Pinochet and when I turn around after the album, the president of the company’s got his head on the table rolling back and forth. “No, no, no.” I said, “What’s the matter?” He says, “You have to take that song off the album.” I said, “Why?” He says, “It reminds me of when I was kid in Cuba.” I said, “That’s your personal problem.” And he says, “It’s got to come off.” I said, “It’s staying on.” So I go to RCA legal and I say, “Look, you signed my contract. This is what I do. First amendment rights, it’s my right to free speech.” So they [put it out]. But we used to sell 200,000 out of the box; 200,000 would ship out. They pressed only like 20,000 and then they put the record to bed. Somebody rediscovered it about two years ago and they pressed a couple and then somebody got to them. “Hey, put that shit back in the box where it belongs.” So then it disappeared again. I wrote most of the songs on that album. The songs about Pinochet and “La Era Nuclear” are excellent socio-political commentary that the corporations just won’t tolerate.
FJO: This seems like a natural segue to talk a little bit about your latest album, El Malo, Volume II, which you’ve put out completely on your own. It’s the first time you’ve ever self-released, which I imagine comes out of that bad experience with RCA.
WC: Well, exactly. Right now what you’ve got is corporate salsa. There are only three record companies left and they own all of the artists. How are you going to put one artist to compete with the others? You lose. Their mode of operation is always: don’t kill a winning formula and more of the same. So the music has become a pastiche of what it used to be. It’s G-rated bubble gum; it’s about: You love me, I love you. Why did you leave me? Refried ballads and up tempo. It’s the same old shit. There are very few salsa bandleaders that play an instrument. It’s not a music thing anymore. Everybody’s holding their microphone. I’m kind of ashamed—I’m one of them now. But I play trombone, too.
I haven’t recorded in 10 years. Finally I said, before I permanently hang up my trombone, I want to do one more record. So I started this project. First thing I get into the studio. I’m looking around for the two-inch tapes, and they don’t exist any more. They don’t even make tape anymore. You know the guys are sitting at a computer. I understand what they’re doing, but it’s so alien. It took me a couple of weeks to get used to it. And aside from the technical part, I approached it the way I do my old albums. We put a lot of hours into it. You can listen to this thing like 10 times, and you’re gonna still keep hearing little details here and there in the background, in the mix. Little stuff was thrown in because it’s very rich. There’s a lot of man hours in this thing.
We’ve got some pretty good players. We’ve got Ricky Gonzalez on piano. We’ve got Luis Bonilla and Ozzie Melendez on trombone, plus Mark Quinones, Bobbie Allende, Gene Perez, Ruben Rodriguez. I brought in Milton [Cardona] and [José] Mangual to do chorus and a lot of the old faces do little cameos. I tried to get a lot of people involved in the project because it could be my last project. Who knows what’s going to happen? It took ten years for this one, so I just threw everything I had into it. And if this thing doesn’t really pan out, I don’t think I’m gonna have the energy or the inclination to go back in there and bleed again. So it was kind of a farewell party.
And the material is good. There’s a lot of sarcasm in it, and there’s some political stuff that’s got the hard edge. There are a couple of songs about drugs and stuff like that. In “Narcomula” there’s a kid they send to Miami to study. His father dies and he’s broke and he decides he’s gonna become a mule to raise some money. So he smuggles some dope into the country. In “Amor de Internet,” there’s a guy who’s never met his girlfriend, you know. They just webcam. We did some hybrids with reggaeton, but we’re really playing the stuff. You know, it’s not a drum machine. And I wrote a suite called the “Magia Blanca” suite. It’s eight minutes long and it just goes like from rumba abierta in the beginning through reggaeton to guaguanco mambo. It has all kinds of movement in it. And I’ve got one singing about my funeral and everybody showing up to see what a great guy I was.
I had a lot of fun. And in the end, I could probably still be working on it. But I couldn’t throw any more money into it and it was time for it to go. I was pleasantly surprised with some of the reviews and the reaction of the people that heard it. Because I’m really saturated with it and after awhile you go, “Maybe this ain’t that good?” But when you get hit with all the information for the first time, it’s going to surprise a lot of people. It’s a lot.
FJO: Well I think it’s pretty fantastic. But I sure hope it’s not the last one.
WC: I don’t speak in absolutes, but you know anything could happen. I don’t know.
FJO: I know that you’ve been busy in the last few years with other stuff. You ran for Bronx Borough President—
WC: —I ran for Public Advocate, also, and came in third, which out of seven candidates was pretty good. And Mike Bloomberg offered me a position as a liaison and that worked out pretty good. I don’t know what the future holds. The panorama here politically is really in flux. I would like to become involved on the political scene, especially in the Bronx. I think it’s important, especially now where Latinos are in a position where it’s gonna be really rough going. People lump us all together, but we’re not a monolith— My parents and my grandparents used to speak perfect English and when I tell people my family got here in 1918, some guys say, “Oh, that was before mine”—but my fate is tied to theirs. Whatever happens to them is going to happen to me.
I’m appalled at some of things that I see going on. I’m not saying that I would be immune—because you don’t know until you take a drink of that water—but I’m just so surprised with and disappointed with how a lot of people turn out after they get elected. I’d like to take my shot at it. I think I would be stronger or more ethical. When it comes to the music, I stood by my guns and not gone for the big buck. So I think I have a calling for that.
FJO: So much of what you’ve done musically has touched so many people. I was watching this video footage of you and Ruben, and it looked like tens of thousands of people in the audience and they were all singing along. They all knew the lyrics and the tune. It blew my mind. So you are obviously able to tap into something that resonates with a lot of people which should effect whatever you do.
WC: Yeah, I had a lot of days and nights like that, and I’m really grateful for it. I couldn’t have dreamed that I would receive that kind of love, and I’m really, really grateful for it. But traveling is really hard these days: “Take your pants off. Take your shoes off. Take your belt off. OK, put them back on.” You go three feet. Oh, there’s another one. It’s really tough. The traveling is harder and harder and as I get older, I don’t travel that good. I used to have a lot of fun on the road. Now the only fun I have is when I finally get a chance to get up on the stage and do my show. But the rest of it, I can pass. So I like to stay home more and find other ways. I’m writing a book, and I’d like to have time to really finish it. I think I can finish it this year.