He Began Playing the Spicy Music at 15 : Willie Colon Plays Salsa and Molds It
Salsa is a musical style of Cuban origin, with other Central and South American rhythms and jazz added. Salsa makes you want to dance. And, says Willie Colon, who has been playing salsa since he was 15, it's a New York sound and a New York word. "I think Izzy Sanabria, who used to have a magazine called Latin New York, made up the word," Colon, 38, says. "We just decided to accept it. We wanted to distinguish a New York sound instead of Afro-Cuban music. "It's a city music. In any big city where they speak Spanish, you'll be able to find somebody playing this. They won't be singing about grass shacks and cutting sugar cane.
"The U.S. is catching the fever for salsa. In America, Latin music surrounds us a lot. Rock bands have Latin percussion. You've got the Miami Sound Machine. Latin hip-hop is just another expression of salsa--salsa kids." Colon's new record, "Altos Secretos" ("Top Secrets"), which includes some salsa innovations, was released this month on Fania. In South America, he says, "Salsa cuts across borders. Each country has a basic folkloric music and will not listen to the others. Colombia has a rhythm called ballenato ; Venezuela has gaita .
"Salsa has a lyric content that's good enough to hold up on the radio and at a concert. It's not just wall-to-wall banging on a tin can. It's dynamic. You have to come across with a powerful sound and legitimate hard swing, a hard edge, and we (Colon's band, the Legal Aliens) have got that." Years ago, he says, "Dizzy Gillespie and more and more jazz players came in to play this stuff, because of the rhythms.
They influenced the music a lot. We have a lot of jazz harmonies and jazz melodies in it." Colon insists that smaller forces than a big band can play salsa. He says: "I've made some changes. Most of them have stuck. When I did them, I got a lot of flack. I was the first guy to start changing Cuban rhythm to Puerto Rican, then to calypso. Some of the old-timers, their socks would go up and down, telling me, 'You can't do that.' We didn't have those Cuban roots to draw back on, since we're all born here. "My parents were born in Manhattan. My grandparents are from Puerto Rico." When he and the Legal Aliens tour in Latin America, he says, "I know there is culture shock when they see us relaxing. We're talking English. We're all Latins. On stage we're singing in Spanish." His previous record was "Especial No. 5," named for the jail cell in Medellin, Colombia, where he and the band were held for two days in 1985 after being late--not their fault, he says--for a concert. He speaks English at home with his wife, who isn't Latin but knows Spanish.
He has three sons, ages 4 and 7, and a 22-year-old who's a policeman. Colon says: "I speak better Spanish than my parents. It's a necessity when you tour. I had to learn to pronounce and express myself." Hector LaVoe was Colon's band singer for eight years. After Colon put Ruben Blades on some cuts of his 1975 "The Good, the Bad, the Ugly" album, Blades sang with Colon's band for six LPs and 6 years. Colon says: "He went with Elektra Records. I was still signed to Fania so that kind of forced the split. "And we had a different kind of concept musically.
I had a concept where I was singing. He had a concept where he was singing. That's basically it." One of the songs that fans want to hear from Colon is "Pedro Navaja," a variation on "Mack the Knife," with words by Blades and music by Colon. Colon started a band at 13 and played some weddings. "Some guys into the circuit would get my number and I started working with other little groups. "I had to forge a cabaret license. I was 14. I glued my picture on it and laminated it. They don't use them anymore. "I started playing trumpet. My grandmother put me in Boy Scouts so I could learn how to be a good boy. I was playing bugle," so in school, he sort of naturally chose a trumpet. "I saw Mon Rivera.
He played marching band music to a bomba beat. It would knock my socks off. He had an all-trombone lineup. Right after that I decided to play trombone. I started two trombone groups. I was able to play bass trumpet and sousaphone--most of the bass instruments. Now it's slide trombone and singing mostly." He started singing in the LaVoe days. Colon says, "He wasn't the most dependable guy. We'd have to start the first set with somebody singing. When I couldn't find anybody around to sing, I would have to take a shot at it."
He produced other artists, including Celia Cruz, for 8 years starting in 1970, and became a music director at WNET, New York's Public Broadcasting Service station, because he was tired of the road. He composed the first salsa ballet, "Mass for the Little Black Angels," for WNET. He put a big string section on his next album after that. "It is another color, another emotion." He composed incidental music for the soundtrack of "Vigilante." He says, "I heard them talking. They were looking for a heavy. They auditioned me. I got the part, a terrible, sleazy guy. Then I did 'The Last Fight,' where I was promoted to a clean bad guy. I was a club owner and had a little gambling syndicate going."
Colon was cast as a good guy in a "Miami Vice" episode, learned his part, but was switched to a baddie at the last minute. He enjoys acting. "I'm so used to working in an ensemble, when I get a chance to work alone, it's good." He was in 12 episodes in "La Intrusa," a Venezuelan soap opera shown in the United States, as one of the leading-lady's lovers. He'll soon do another soap there, "The Millionaires." He says, "I'll be a policeman, a good guy."