Thursday, October 18, 1990

CANTO A MI TIERRA 9/14-15/90

CANTO A MI TIERRA 9/14-15/90
Centro de Bellas Artes San Juan Puerto Rico
Colón sings to our land- A concert that made history
by Lydia Milagros 

This concert made history for many more reasons than merely the presence of a numerous crowd. In fact, for an artist who has sung to almost half a million people (450,000) in a single concert,(something which happened not quite one year ago at the "Washington Monument Concert"), the presence of huge masses of people attending his concerts is not the only thing which defines the value of Willie's music or its validity in today's world. this particular concert held last weekend in Bellas Artes, Willie Colón made history because the ideas and the message which successfully took shape with him on stage are ones that are rarely found in other| salsa concerts.
The concert that I attended took place on Friday the 14th and dedicated to singer Hector LaVoe, who was part of the orchestra and responsible for many of its hits. When the curtains opened, the scenery depicted a shadowy, dream-like view of New York City as if from behind an angular lens. Sadly typical characters of the city crossed the stage to the tune of the musical "A Chorus Line, while in the front area of the stage, a movable platform with dancers slowly rose to eye-level of the public. As we heard the voice of the announcer proclaiming the many prizes and honors awarded to Willie Colón, we realized that we were witnessing a much more elaborate show than the norm. "What is all this?", we thought, somewhat confused at first by this Broadway setting which seemingly indicated the "Americanization" of someone who has always proudly waved the Puerto Rican flag.
Maybe this is why we were so taken aback when the curtains or screen suddenly lit up and a stream of light revealed a palm tree in the middle of a Puerto Rican beach scene. A veiled message in support of state status?" we might ask with distress. No, nothing of the sort. All our doubts were immediately dispelled to the strains of that unmistakably "Williecolonesque" music, which is as ingrained in our basic salsa as it is in our collective soul. It was a marvelous moment, as if the music had given a solid KO to all the previous sounds and images. What remained was the neatly placed palm tree giving us the feel of the tropics and the dreamy, golden light of Puerto Rican dusks which bathed the stage and scenery, complete even down to the presence of the typical fried food stand. All this confirmed that we were indeed in the heart of that Puerto Rico which, although very real, never quite loses its charm and enchantment. Our kudos go out to those in charge of the stage design and lighting.
For those "gourmets" of sociology or anthropology, on stage were the basic ingredients which "cook up" our present Puerto Rican identity: music and food. For no small reason is this music called salsa. But this is news to no one: these two elements have always been present in many performances, with greater or lesser deliberateness. On this particular occasion, thanks to a well written libretto, this deliberateness was clearly evidenced in what Willie Colón said between one number and another.
Dressed in his crowd pleasing and distinctive black "bad guy" suit (well-fitting, in more ways than one), he entered somewhat timidly to rounds of applause. He began reading with some difficulty, instead of using his own words, which would have been better for Willie Colón and for the message itself.
"I could do this all commented a university professor who was enjoying the goings-on. This was Willie Colón's contribution to the much-needed and urgent dialogue between Puerto Ricans here and Puerto Ricans there. Especially now, as some question the right of Puerto Ricans there to vote in the upcoming plebiscite. If anyone had any doubts as to how a good part of the generations that settled in New York feel about their "Puerto Ricanness", the matter was certainly cleared up at this point. The honesty with which Willie Colón talked about his feelings, ranging from those he has towards the terrible yet fascinating city of New York, to his "obsession with Puerto Rico"was not mere wordiness. And we can confirm this after the contact we have had with his work of more than 23 years. No one can question the "Puerto Ricanness" of this artist. The man who integrated Brazilian, Colombian and American beat into his music in such a way that they have become a part of our musical language must undoubtedly be quite sure of who he is. For himself and for the majority of the Puerto Rican population of New York, he has confirmed the persistence of his national cultural identity. Willie Colon is himself as a man of the people, and the best speech he can make is his music itself.
He composed such musical works as "La Murga de Panama" and several songs from his famous Christmas album have become the "classics" of a repertoire of native Puerto Rican music. For that is at least how the crowd responded when the famous chords of those songs and other music were heard. It was as if he had played upon the strings of the Puerto Rican soul.
Another innovation that added more "meat" to this dialogue, in addition to the creative dimension of the performance, was the appearance of the dramatic poet Tato Laviera. Like Willie, Tato is a Puerto Rican from New York, and he is a genius of the spoken word. Tato spoke and dramatized three of his own great poems, poems of the type that question, accuse, that| us laugh and think at the same time.
Through his poetic readings, Tato elaborated on those feelings of rejection and lack of understanding that have clouded the ties between Puerto Ricans living "here" and "there" Tato's natural warmth helped us all to bear the suffering and shame we feel when faced with this reality.
But the seemingly happy-go-lucky addition of a poet and his own work to a salsa concert merely bears witness to the innovative, searching spirit that characterizes Willie Colón and his music. On both accounts, we congratulate him. In its selection of several musical numbers, the concert reflected an awareness of socially related topics and concerns. The plight of children, AIDS victims, nuclear threats and the alienation of homosexuals were topics developed in some of Willie's musical works which in fact have become big hits, such as: "La Era Nuclear" or "El Gran Varón.
Although the concert ended on a low note, as it touched on the subject of AIDS, the audience (which until that time had kept its composure) suddenly broke into an unexpected show of enthusiasm applause.
This encouraged the orchestra and its leader, Willie Colón, to play an excellent "sabroso" encore, leaving us all on a high note and giving us the urge to dance " on the tips of our toes| ", as tradition says. This all, despite reverberations of the unspoken position regarding the absentee vote, which could be very well inferred from the experience we had there that night. For it was these New York Puerto Ricans who brought us the message that, in order to survive, you must know who you are and you must affirm it. This is in fact the key to Willie Colón's success. In spite of everything, he has grown because he has hung onto the values he found in his own culture.
If anyone's "petticoat" was ever slipping, it has never been more true than with the "independentistas" of the PIP. In addition to surprisingly giving support to a plebiscite where they will get a tremendous beating as far as votes in their favor, they have also entered into a contradiction by opposing the absentee vote.
They are fierce supporters of the plebiscite and yet they oppose the right of New York Puerto Ricans to vote. These positions can hardly be reconciled. On this the PIP has played a sad role in history and its consequences will be felt very shortly. The first and most evident interpretation of all this is that despite our people's struggle to maintain our national identity while in the "belly of the beast" who seeks to digest us, Puerto Rico cannot even count on an "independentista" party to defend it.
It is impossible to continue a critique of this concert without taking note of the other ideas and messages contained within this "Canto a mi tierra" (I Sing to My Land) of the great Willie Colón such messages being the ones that motivated this performance and this article. I feel that this concert demonstrated many things that had been sketched out in his works. Under the umbrella provided by a means of cultural expression such as popular music, our people once again reunite.

This is one of the objectives that culture always seeks, and on this specific occasion it took on shades of self-assertion. By more clearly opening a dialogue between Puerto Ricans from "here and there" we can improve on this necessary re-unification. The desire for "unity among Puerto Ricans" is one of the most golden dreams of our people. Popular music provides that space and sentiment that communicate and reaffirm our calling as a nation. It is our clear intention to gather up strength in order to face all the serious problems which threaten to destroy our social life as a people. In the midst of so many processes that have separated us, both this dreamt-about unity and the affirmation of our "sabor" and way of feeling continue to develop due to the will of the people, regardless of the political parties which no longer represent it.
The formal elements and values brought together in this concert show that this important cultural development of ours continues to wage its battles and to grow with ever-increasing awareness. Sincere congratulations to all and "Arriba Puerto Rico!" - straight from the heart.