Legendary Fania trombonist, vocalist and bandleader Willie Colón read our recent post about the 50th anniversary of Fania Records and contacted us, wanting to comment further.
Born and raised in a roughneck corner of the Bronx in 1950, Colón crystallized the salsa sound with his unusual lead instrument — the trombone — and by teaming up with the incomparable Héctor Lavoe. His arranging work and collaborations with Rubén Blades, Mon Rivera, Celia Cruz and the Fania All Stars was the heart and soul of the genre. The golden age may have only been a moment, but Colón continues to record and tour around the world, helping keep the spirit alive.
He agreed to respond to some of our questions.
Fusion: You have mentioned in the past that your partnership with vocalist Héctor Lavoe was a key to imbuing salsa with a new kind of Latino identity. Could you explain that?
Willie Colón: Our vastly different perspectives complemented each other. Hector was a jíbaro [someone from the countryside] from Puerto Rico who spoke no English, I was a street savvy Nuyorican who spoke broken Spanglish. It was common for Nuyoricans to deride and ridicule jíbaros from the Island; the way they dressed, the music they liked, the way they talked. On the Island it was vice versa. They goofed on us when we tried to speak Spanish; we were generally considered bad apples.
Together we created a bridge that made it cool to be a jíbaro and Nuyorican. We were able to reconcile these two divergent sub-cultures with great street stories and a funky jazz approach to the playing. We were youngand ready to rumble.
The last element, and probably the most marketable, was the gangsta image we created on the covers. Still today I get peoplelike P Diddy talking about those covers. Because of those covers I get a lot of rappers and urban artists sampling my stuff. Major Lazer wrote Bumaye over a horn line from one of my arrangements. I think I attract these artists becausethey identify with the attitude on my old covers. Not saying that my licks aren’t remarkable but the image came first.
Fusion: What were some of the things that were responsible for the decline of salsa in the 80s and 90s?
Willie Colón: Salsa's best friend and worst enemy was its success. Just before it peaked economically it was an awesome thing to behold. We had a lot to prove to each other. The competition was fierce. Eddie Palmieri, Joe Cuba, Tito Puente, Richie Ray, Ray Barretto, Lebrón Brothers, Johnny Colón, on and on and on. All fighting for some space and chomping at the bit to kick the other band’s ass at a gig or on the radio.
Producers then started cutting corners and lowering the bar. They had to figure out how to deliver a record for a fraction of what they were used to. This led to a dumbing down of the music; shorter less complicated arrangements, sometimes written so that the musicians can complete the whole album in one or two sittings. I used to take up to 6 months to finish a record.
Fusion: Was salsa becoming “big business” also part of its downfall?
Willie Colón: Corporate thinking cultivated a legion of "microphone holders." Gone were the musician leaders. The corporates got really aggressive and started to buy contracts and develop their own stables. These were people that may have known business but didn’t have a clue about this music or the people who made and enjoyed it. But sales plummeted because in leaving New York, the heart of the salsa industry, they killed the club scene; the incubator of this music.
Fusion: What do you think the future holds?
Willie Colón: As long as I can play there will be people that want to hear me. It’s not that I am that good, it’s because I very old! But seriously, there are millions and millions of salseros out there in Latin America they range from 12 to 70. I regularly play to crowds of 40, 70, 150 thousand souls.
The memory of Fania will live on like the legend of Camelot. You might say that the Fania All-stars were the Knights of the Round Table.
Album covers via idjleal.tumblr.com, faniaallstars.tumblr.com, nostalgiapuertorico.tumblr.com.