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The Salsa Revolution

Chapter 3: Nuyorican Identity, New Latin Sounds

LUCIANO: (OC) We were at that time as Puerto Ricans wanting to be bad. We wanted to be tough, and 'Superfly' was out,

[FOOTAGE: 'Superfly' movie clip]

LUCIANO:... and 'Shaft' and all of that stuff.

[FOOTAGE: 'Shaft' movie clip]

LUCIANO: (OC) and we wanted to be part of that. (VO) So Willie, a working class Puerto Rican kid, took the image of the gangster and exploited it.

[STILLS: LP cover of Willie Colon 'Cosa Nuestra' — which has Willie standing over a body under the Brooklyn bridge with his trombone and 3 other stills from the shoot — other mafia type poses with body]

W. COLON: (VO) The clothes I was wearing and that gangster thing kind of played into the image, and it really caught on. (OC) It gave us an opportunity to do things with the covers that were interesting (VO) and we would kind of parallel what was going on. We did 'The Good the Bad and the Ugly' and 'The Hustler', the movie with Paul Newman; we did 'The Untouchables'. (OC) So it was kind of a mirror of what was going on in the media in those days.

[STILL: LP cover: Willie Colon & Hector Lavoe: 'Vigilante'] [STILL: LP cover: 'The Good the Bad and the Ugly'] [STILL: LP cover: Willie Colon: 'The Hustler'] [STILL: LP cover: 'The Untouchables']

[STILL: photo of young Willie Colon in suit and tie]

W. COLON: (VO) My mother was going out with this guy whose father was Harry Belafonte's doorman (OC) and Harry Belafonte was always giving him these beautiful silk ties and he would give them to me (VO) because he had no reason to wear a tie so I you know, as part of my look you know had all of these beautiful, Harry Belafonte's tie collection.

[STILL: photo of young Willie Colon in suit and tie]

[STILL: Izzy Sanabria with magazine covers on floor]

Graphic artist and concert emcee Izzy Sanabria would design some of the most memorable Fania album covers and posters.

IZZY SANABRIA, EMCEE & DESIGNER: (OC) I came up with this idea which was influenced by the fact that I had seen on sale, posters by the FBI of (VO) Bobby Seale, and you know some of the Black Panthers, so I took Willie Colon downstairs to a local arcade, I took (OC) two profile shots, and four right on shots (VO) and then I put 'Wanted by the FBI'.

[STILLS: Montage of Bobby Seal poster, Willie Colon mug shots and 'Wanted by the FBI' poster]

WILLIE COLON: (VO) It looked exactly like a post office wanted poster and we took like twenty thousand of them (OC) and we put them around the city, we glued them all over the place. And people that didn't speak a lot of English or you know, they were calling up the FBI to find out how much the reward was.

SANABRIA: Willie Colon's grandmother almost had a heart attack because her neighbors came in "Ah tu no sabe que la FBI esta buscando a Willie" you know and Willie had to come in to tell them "oh this is just a promotion in my album."

[STILL: Poster of 'The big break' with the artists jumping over a prison fence]

W. COLON: (VO) We were like a self-promoting merchandising machine and it was (OC) all just organic 'cause we were playing.

[FOOTAGE: Willie Colon and Hector singing 'Todo tiene su final']

Colon's music had evolved as well. He had moved away from boogaloo toward a more Latin sound that played to the strengths of singer Hector Lavoe.

W. COLON: (VO) On all of Hector's recordings (OC) he was able to play with the rhythm and put the words in the way they fit you know, you could give him the words and he would just kind of rock them around and wrap them around the rhythm and make it happen.

[FOOTAGE: Willie Colon and Hector singing 'Todo tiene su final']

Lavoe sang with the full flavor of rural Puerto Rico. He was from the countryside, a jíbaro, and proud of it.

SUBTITLES: I lost the one I loved most When my mother died But I carried on...

JOHNNY PACHECO: (VO) He was the most popular (OC) of all the singers at Fania because he was a real Puerto Rican, a real 'jibarito' and he always, he never, he said "that's me and that's the way I want to be." And the people loved that.

W. COLON: (OC) We kept working together and finally we got this, you know, chemistry where I really got to know him and understand him (VO) and I learned a lot from him: he taught me Spanish, I taught him English. (OC) And it was great, I had the Bronx street stuff going and he had that, that country Puerto Rican (VO) folkloric thing you know and it was a great combination.

[STILL: Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe together]

[FOOTAGE: Beach in Puerto Rico]

[FOOTAGE: Green hills in Puerto Rico]

Colon began to draw on his own childhood experience of the island.

[STILL: photo of Willie Colon as a small boy]

[FOOTAGE: Puerto Rican countryside.]

W. COLON: (VO) My grandmother, every chance she got she would (OC) save money and send me back to Puerto Rico just so I wouldn't get into any trouble. (VO) You know they put me up in a farm up there with her (OC) and I think that was really important to me in my development.

[DEMONSTRATION: Yomo Toro playing the Quatro]

By the early seventies, Colon's growing sense of Puerto Rican pride had led him in a new experimental direction, integrating the folk traditions of the island into his music.

W. COLON: I had a string of hits already with Hector and I go to Jerry at his new big office at eight eighty eight 7th avenue to the Fania suite, go into his office and I said Jerry I want to do a Christmas album, "Great great idea," I said "Yeah but I want to do a Christmas 'jibaro' album, I want to do Puerto Rican music," and he says, "yeah, yeah, yeah, just bring me the record I don't, I don't have time," and I said "okay great."

[DEMONSTRATION: Yomo Toro playing the Cuatro]

To add an authentic jíbaro feel to the album, Colon wanted the instrument most identified with the Puerto Rican countryside, the Cuatro. He called on Yomo Toro, a musician he had first heard as a boy while visiting his mother at her job in a lingerie shop in El Barrio.

W. COLON: I'd be in the store visiting and you know somebody would come in to buy underwear I'd have to go out 'cause it's you know a little personal and I'd walk a couple of stores down and I saw this bar, the Campana Bar, and in the window of the Campana Bar it said Yomo Toro, Fridays, and I looked and I hear a guy you know I hear the the Cuatro playing and stuff you know, inside with the go go girls, and I'm trying to peek inside and usually somebody would come out and hey get away from there 'cause I was just a little kid, think I'm trying to see the go go girls but I wanted to well I,... both.

[STILL: LP 'Asalto Navideño']

Colon's Asalto Navideño, Christmas Assault, with its traditional and Nuyorican sounds, would become one of Fania's biggest albums, selling well in New York, Puerto Rico and breaking new ground for the label in South America. One track would become a classic, La Murga.

[FOOTAGE: Performance of 'La Murga" by Willie Colon, Hector Lavoe, et al.]

La Murga was based on a riff picked up while on tour in Panama.

W. COLON: (OC) It's been sampled and copied and stuff on a zillion records. It goes,

[DEMONSTRATION: Willie Colon plays introduction to 'La Murga']

[FOOTAGE: People dancing to 'La Murga' on TV show]

While in Panama, Colon and Lavoe had left a deep impression on a young musician who would eventually take Salsa in an entirely new direction.

RUBEN BLADES: They had this raw power, energy, and we all went, whoa.

[STILL: Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe]

Blades tried to sell them some of his songs. Lavoe said to call him at his hotel.

BLADES: I couldn't sleep that night, I was so thrilled. And of course, I call him at eight o'clock in the morning. He probably played 'til three, four o'clock in the morning, he partied and he'd just gone to bed. And he picked up the phone and I introduced myself and he said, "Oh yeah, listen brother, can you give me a little chance, 'cause I'm gonna go to sleep now." And I said, oh yeah, yeah, I'm sorry.

We said we'll meet some other time... and as it turns out that I did.


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