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Colón's Music Hits Social, Political Notes
by David Cazares
July 18, 2003
It has been said that art and politics don't mix. But many of the world's best musicians know that their art -- and their lives -- wouldn't be as rich without a spirit of activism.
One of the performers whose music can't be separated from his social conscience is Willie Colón, the composer, arranger, singer and trombonist who for more than three decades has been one of salsa's most substantive stars.
Throughout his career, Colón has infused his music with social and political commentary while also enriching salsa with the kind of instrumentation and musicianship that has influenced Latin jazz musicians. Along the way, he has run for borough president in New York City, for U.S. Congress and fought against the U.S. Navy's use of the island of Vieques as a target range.
On July 26, Colón brings his blend of invigorating dance music and cultural and political messages to Fort Lauderdale's Broward Center, 201 SW Fifth Ave. The Bronx-born singer promises to deliver a concert that far surpasses the kind of bland salsa the record companies are trying to market these days.
For Colón, 53, the key to success is his faithfulness to the music's call-and-response roots and his dedication to making music that educates while also fostering cultural awareness -- the same way earlier groups did.
"What made the salsa music of the 1970s, and of Fania, such a success was that each group was following its own style, not going along with the crowd," he said. "In those days in New York, you had a group in the Bronx and another in Brooklyn.
There was a lot of competition involved. There was a goal of having a different sound. It wasn't the same thing. Everybody wanted to make a different statement."
Colón's incorporation of political messages into his music is much more subtle than that of longtime collaborator Ruben Blades, with whom he made one of the genre's most famous albums, Siembra (Sow), in 1978. The album combined Colón's serious salsa rhythms and arrangements with Blades' story-like songs that preached against totalitarianism and called for freedom in Latin America.
Colón's music frequently touches on Puerto Rican issues, especially the angst of people who abandoned their homeland for urban America. A first-class sonero (improviser), his music is some of the best in the business, with smart arrangements, ample brass and percussion -- a far cry from the sugary music too often heard on Spanish-language radio.
"A lot of salsa now has become so homogenous that it sounds like soap operas," Colón said. "They don't have anything to say."
If there was ever any indication that salsa fans are hungry for relevant messages, it is the reception that Colón and Blades have received during their 25th anniversary concerts for Siembra. A show in Puerto Rico in May, for example, drew a sold-out crowd of 27,000.
For salsa musicians to connect with young audiences, they must produce music that is invigorating and relevant, he said, "just the way the kids are making rap and hip-hop now.
"I think young people need an option that will satisfy all of the things that they're going through, music that will talk about their lives, something different than insipid love song after love song," he said.
At the Broward Center, Colón plans to offer fans a show that includes much of his repertoire.
"I'm going to try to make everybody happy," he said. "There's going to be people who are going to want to hear stuff from the Hector Lavoe days. Some people are going to want to hear stuff from Ruben Blades. It's going to be wall-to-wall music.
We'll play until they pull the plug."