On a whim nearly 25 years ago, I bought a salsa LP, which at the time was a genre of music I knew virtually nothing about. The record was Tiempo Pa’ Matar, a 1984 album by someone named Willie Colón. I had no idea who Willie Colón was or what the significance was of that album. But I do remember listening to it and thinking that it didn’t completely sound like what I imagined salsa would sound like. Something was different, but I couldn’t quite figure out what.
A few years later I became friends with Orlando Fiol, an extremely versatile pianist who was then playing in the salsa band of his father, Henry Fiol. I asked Orlando what salsa records I should buy. He immediately recommended Siembra by Willie Colón and Ruben Blades, and for that matter any of the earlier Willie Colón records which featured singing by Hector LaVoe. There was Willie Colón again. Within a couple of weeks I had gotten a hold of Siembra and several of the Colón-LaVoe albums—The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, La Gran Fuga, and one that quickly became my favorite, Lo Mato Si No Compra Esta LP. (The English translation of that is “I’ll Kill Him If You Don’t Buy This Record” and the cover features Willie Colón holding a gun to someone’s head.)
Every one of those records raised more questions than it answered in my attempt to get a grasp of what salsa was. Colón seemed to be changing the rules with each album, but I soon started to realize that was the point. His very first record, El Maloincorporates jazz and soul. On La Gran Fuga, traditional West African drumming and a Mexican fiesta enter his sound world. On Lo Mato there’s some really crazy chromaticism. Good Bad Ugly has prog rock moments. Tiempo Pa’ Matar breaks with tradition by featuring women in the call-and-response choruses of the songs (what salseros call “singing coro”) instead of men. And Siembra, with its conjuring of Weill and Brecht, a wide variety of sound effects, and a seamless metric modulation from disco to salsa, completely defies shorthand description.
For Colón, all of these ingredients can be viable in salsa, but putting all these musics together was a way of making a statement that was as much sociopolitical as it was musical. And as a result of his putting all these ingredients into this music, salsa evolved into one of the most exciting and unpredictable genres of American music. While some have decried salsa as a nonexistent genre that’s just a hybrid of Cuban music, salsa is a conscious amalgamation of musical elements from Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Domincan Republic, and beyond, that could only have happened in a place where people from all of these places lived together—here in the United States. And Willie Colón has been this music’s most versatile practitioner for well over 40 years. In fact, the sophistication of Colón’s compositions and arrangements, as well as his instrumental solos (on trombone and bass trumpet) and vocals, matches what we treasure in the realms of contemporary jazz and post-classical music.
Over the last decade, though, Willie Colón has been musically silent, getting involved in politics and other causes. Happily, while still actively pursuing a wide range of extramusical endeavors, Colón decided to return to the recording studio and create a brand new album, El Malo, Volume II which continues to mine new territory—some of the new songs incorporate reggaeton and one track could best be described as musique concrète. So it seemed the perfect time to talk to him about his five-decade career of musical innovation.