The Ultimate Willie Col??n Interview
Music superstar tells it like it is
Al Carlos Hernandez - Contributing Editor
Willie Col??n is an international Latin Music superstar and one of the founding fathers of the genre of music called "Salsa."This New York City Bronx-born of Puerto Rican grandparent has fused his musical talent, his passion for humanity, and his community and political activism into an extraordinary and multifaceted career. He is, for many, a spokesman for a generation.
Published on LatinoLA: February 14, 2010
His achievements are widely recognized. As musician, composer, arranger, singer, and trombonist, as well as producer and director, Col??n still holds the all-time record for sales. He has created forty productions that have sold more than thirty million records worldwide. His collaboration with Ruben Blades, "Siembra", is the biggest selling album of all time for this genre. His collaboration with Hector LaVoe, known as "El Cantante", was the milestone that spread this fusion of tropical/urban music throughout Latin America and around the world. He has eleven Grammy nominations, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Latin Grammy, fifteen gold and five platinum records, and has collaborated with such musical greats as the Fania All Stars, David Byrne, and Celia Cruz.
His music, which has powerfully influenced Latin jazz, reflects both rhythmic traditional lyrics and the cries of farewell and hope from a new generation pressured to abandon their homeland to congregate in urban America. During his musical and cultural odyssey from the Bronx to the world scene, he moved from a fascination with the tropical paradise of his ancestors to the stark street images of rebellious youth and social struggle and finally to a mature fusion of joy and injustice, beauty and suffering, romance and realism. He has become an articulate and responsible public figure - clever at injecting political messages into his music without becoming overbearing. He has been a visiting professor and lecturer at many prestigious colleges and universities. He is now a mainstay on social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter.
In 1991 he was awarded Yale University's CHUBB Fellowship, a political recognition he shares with the late John F. Kennedy, Moshe Dyane, Jesse Jackson, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush.
In 1993 he participated in the Presidential Inaugural Ceremonies, and in the following year, President Clinton invited Col??n to become a member of the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities. He declined this distinction in order to run in New York State's 17th Congressional District primary. In 1995 he became the first minority to serve on the prestigious ASCAP National Board of Trustees and is now a member of the ASCAP Foundation. In 1996 he was nominated as one of the 100 most Influential U.S. Hispanics by Hispanic Business Magazine. In 1997 Willie Col??n became a spokesperson for the international relief and development organization CARE and visited sites in Bolivia on their behalf. In late 1997- early 1998 Col??n appeared in the recurring role of Feliciano Pintor, a Puerto Rican DEA agent in the TV Azteca soap "Demasiado Coraz??n."
In November 1998 Col??n and Blades made history again with the Amnesty International Concert at la Carlota Airport in Caracas, Venezuela where more than 141,000 tickets were sold.
In 1999 he opened Sal??n 21 in Mexico City, one of the finest grand live music halls in the Americas. On February 12th in collaboration with the United Nation's women's organization UNIFEM, and the Mexican sister organization SEMILLAS, Willie hosted the tremendously successful International Women's Day fund raiser.
In 1999, Col??n was asked to be part of the Jubilee 2000 Delegation to the Vatican along with Randolph Robinson of Trans Africa, Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs, Bono from U2, and Quincy Jones. This initiative received Pope John Paul II's endorsement and later prompted President Clinton to forgive the US portion of the third world indebted countries. In November of 1999 he became Dr. William A. Col??n when Hartford CT's Trinity College conferred the degree of Doctor of Music for "The Art of Courage." This is a recognition given to artists who have used their art to make political change.
In 2000, he was chosen to perform in Mexico City's El Z??calo plaza, to celebrate Easter (Sabado de Gloria) before a capacity crowd of over 100,000. Col??n also appeared as the headliner to Puerto Rico's Regatta 2000 last May drawing a crowd of over 125,000 in Old San Juan. In Mexico City, he also wrote and produced a sitcom TV pilot titled "Willie's Caf?®." In 2002, Willie Col??n was retained by NYC & COMPANY (The City of New York Convention and Visitor's Bureau) as a Senior Advisor and Consultant, he was also appointed as Mayor Bloomberg's representative to El Museo Del Barrio. On May 3 2003, Ruben and Willie reunited for the Siembra 25th Anniversary Concert. They packed Hiram Bithorn Stadium with 27,000 fans that turned out for this 3 hour concert that included many of their early hits together. This concert was also critically acclaimed by the press for the excellent musical performance by Willie & Ruben and their All Star Orchestra that was composed of members of both Ruben and Willies present and former band members.
September 1, 2004, Willie Col??n receives the Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award from Latin Grammy.
August 2005, WILLIE COL?ôN AND MARC ANTHONY TOUR LATIN AMERICA - Sold out Tour included Bogot?í, Medellin and Cali, Colombia, Guayaquil and Quito, Ecuador and Lima, Peru.
September 17, 2005 Willie Col??n launches US Postal Services Bailemos Stamp series.
Along with all these commitments, Willie Col??n gives priority to spending time with his wife, Julia, and sons, and enjoys indulging in such other interests as boating, aviation and computers. He currently hosts a website text www.williecolon.com and a Cyber Forum WILLIE COL?ôN FORUM.
Through his work, positive message and example, Willie Col??n has developed into an internationally respected socio-political voice, equally at home on the entertainment or political scene, whether it is New York City, Latin America, or the Vatican.
LatinoLA Contibuting Editor Al Carlos Herandez, had a chance this week to rekindle his friendship and continue a conversation he and Willie had more than 20 years ago.
AC: You were born and raised in New York. Why did you choose to pursue a career in Latin music rather than R&B, Pop, or Rock?
WC: I was raised by my grandmother, Antonia Roman Pintor, a peasant (j?¡bara) with a third grade education from the hills of Manat?¡ Saliente, between Manat?¡ and Ciales, Puerto Rico. My mother was a teenage mom (16) and abdicated my rearing to Abuela (Grandma). From her I learned Spanish and got my indoctrination as a Puerto Rican. Even more than my parents - they tried to assimilate. My father was a heroin addict and was never around, and when he was, we wished he wasn't. My grandma spoke very little English so our communications were mostly in Spanish. Even when I spoke to her in English she would answer in Spanish. She was of the first migration from PR at the dawn of the 20th century. She spoke and read and even sang to me in Spanish.
The hood was mostly Latino immigrants, not like El Barrio, that was almost 100% PR. The Bronx was more like Queens, a blend of many Latino nationalities. After school I would hang at my friend Michael's house till Abuela and my mom would get home from work. Michael's mother was Edna Davidson, a beautiful black Paname??a with green eyes. There would be jam sessions in the summer, which the remaining white residents resented. Fernando, a Dominican from across street, would bring his fiddle. Pap?¡n, a Cuban, would bring his bass. Ti Joe, an African American, would bring his trumpet and Moe, Fernan, Toro, all Puerto Ricans, would play congas and sing coro.
The walls on the block would be covered with posters that were glued one over the other as time passed. These would have pictures of Tito Puente or Machito or Tito Rodriguez or Joe Cuba or Charlie Palmieri. These were our heroes. I knew what the Titos (Puente & Rodriguez) looked like from a very young age.
My grandma bought me a trumpet for my 11th birthday. She had a son who died of meningitis at 6 years old. He was going to be a saxophonist. I think that when Abuela looked at me she saw her departed son Gilberto. They say that "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." That's literally what happened. At about 11-12 years old I learned trumpet from a man who played trumpet in my neighborhood. He heard me practicing and knocked on my door. When I started to play trumpet, I learned "Dolores La Pachanguera" a hit by the Joe Cotto band with Mon Rivera singing. I was exposed to the Beatles and Herb Alpert and Al Hirt. I loved Rafael Mendez (Mexican) "The greatest trumpeter that ever lived." But besides the neighborhood and all of that, I probably decided to play Latin music just to make my Abuela proud of me.
AC: You were the first to adapt a gangster type persona in the very beginning of your career. Where did that "malo" image come from? Looking back, did that image help or hurt your overall career trajectory? How do feel about being a hero to young rappers?
WC: I had no brothers and no father around to back me up so I had to learn to fight for myself. I became a mean little sucker. If you were bigger than me and beat me, I learned to come back and get you when you weren't looking. I needed to develop a reputation for being crazy or I would never survive. There was an ongoing plague of heroin addicts on the streets and I was not a big guy. I needed to teach people that if they hurt me or stole something from me that I would get even. That's where part of the rep came from. When we started gigging I already knew the handle I wanted, so I wrote a song by that title so that I could use the handle. The nickname was EL MALO.
It was a natural; all I had to do is play it up. At 15, I'd take pictures with a cigar in my mouth. The Untouchables was a popular gangster TV series so I started to dress like a 1930's gangster. I would never smile into the camera. Everybody else did. I created an attitude which everybody and their mother uses now. I want to laugh when I see everybody trying to grill the camera now. It's old. Now I'm back to smiling.
The gangsta theme worked well at the gigs so when I recorded I started to embellish the gansta theme. But I always kept it tongue-in-cheek. We didn't really shoot anyone. Well, we got into a lot of fights because of it. Young bloods would show up to challenge us. But if you were to really look at the album artwork, it was meant to be funny. "Armed with trombone and considered dangerous" things like that. But it does feel good to get respect from the young bloods.
AC: You were very successful at a young age, yet political at the same time. Do you think that your music and some of the messages embedded changed the way Latinos perceived themselves culturally? Can music effect a change in the body politic? Could Salsa occur anywhere but New York at the time?
WC: The 50's and 60's were times of political upheaval in the U.S. The civil-rights movement was on a collision course with Middle America and we all got caught in the process. Our jam sessions were a source of aggravation for the whites who remained in the neighborhood.
Eventually our neighbors would call the police, who were all white. We would be ordered to disperse or get cited for disturbing the peace and unlawful assembly. We'd break up our jam session and return after they were gone or, if we'd already had our fill, till tomorrow. The next time the police would show up they were less friendly about it. The relationship was very strained to a point where they'd take a drum or discretely bop somebody on the head.
Meanwhile, Martin Luther Kings was marching on Selma and we'd see the attack dogs and the water hoses on TV. We understood precisely what they were going through and in a way we felt part of it. Our jam sessions, though not explicitly political, were an act of civil disobedience.
That is the socio-political underpinning of Salsa music. The dances were practically "meetings" for a marginalized group of people. It reminds me a lot of Brazilian Capoeira. The music gave us a mutual cause - it made us visible to each other. The days of "I love Lucy" were long gone. We weren't cute anymore. Being Latino became a more underground counterculture thing.
Music can be used to educate. It is a traditional oral-teaching form that lends itself to today's technologies. Music can insidiously provide information to people who can't or won't read. By its very nature music unites people. Musicians must cooperate to make music, dancers must socialize to dance, and audiences must congregate to enjoy a concert. If you were to ask people to come and listen to Senator Rodriguez make a speech you'd get a very different result than what you get when people come to a concert.
The music has spread throughout Latin America and is accepted and cherished as a symbol of our modern common culture. No political movement has been as successful in unifying Latinos.
Salsa could not have been born anywhere but New York, a multicultural Mecca where the best of the best come to seek their fortune. Classical music, jazz, and folkloric players coming together in the capitol of the world.
AC: During the Fania years you helped change the flavor of Caribbean based Afro-Cuban music. What is some of your best memories of those days? Why did you leave Fania?
WC: Because of my growing up in the Irish and Italian part of town and watching it become a diverse Latino community, I wasn't hung-up with "We have to do it exactly this way," the way many other aficionados were. While I adored and respected Cuban music for what it was, I wanted to try to cross-pollinate. Brazilian music had such sophisticated yet subtle chord progressions. African and Caribbean music had fun rhythms and great lyrics. I wanted to bring all these things together and present these things that make me feel so good to people who weren't fortunate enough to have found them.
When I broke out the chart for "Che Che Col?®" the guys in the band started moaning and groaning. "Aaw Willie, what is this crap?" They refused to play the chart. I became indignant and pushed it through. After a couple of run throughs the guys started getting it. They said things like, "Hey this is cool!"
I was never a calculating person. Forgive the clich?® but I did what I did for the sake of the art. I was so focused on making this new music that I didn't concentrate on what I was going to get out of it financially. When Ruben packed his bags and went to Elektra I was still indebted to Fania for a few albums. Much later, I decided I wanted to go out into the "real record world." My lawyer found me a deal with RCA. Jerry offered to match anything they'd pay but I said, "No, Jerry it's nothing personal, I just need to go out into the real world." Leaving Fania was one of the biggest mistakes of my life.
AC: I am told that the only person who made money with Fania was Johnny Pacheco, and those artists didn't get a fair piece of the pie. Is that true? Do you think that the Salsa music template that you laid down would have been more commercially acceptable if greed didn't kill the whole scene?
WC: I produced the Willie & Hector records, which include many big standard hits. I also produced the Willie & Ruben records which include "Siembra" the all-time best seller. I produced both Hector's & Ruben's solo albums which were very successful. Add to that my production of Celia Cruz's albums and my solo records and you have the most successful producer in Latin music that ever was. With a resume like that I should never have to work again. Unfortunately, that's not the case.
Pardon me while I hit you with another dog-eared clich?® but I grew up very poor. So I am grateful for what I have. I have four sons and four grandchildren and a woman who has stood by me for 33+ years. It was the foundation of what I made with Fania that helped me live a life that has allowed me have great adventures, wonderful experiences, and friends all over this planet. But as I get older I keep thinking about something another Jerry said - Jerry McGuire: 'SHOW ME THE MONEY!" During the years of my greatest success and in my naivety, I failed to make sure I got the credit or the dollars that were coming to me.
I took what money I made and bought my first house while Pacheco was pimping around with a mink coat, gold cane, and a Rolls Royce. Many artists were resentful; some even resented me for my "success." But I have to say that Jerry put money into the Salsa scene like nobody else ever did. Renting Yankee Stadium, making movies, touring the Fania All Stars. He was putting his money on the table and rolling them dice big time. Would I like to get what I was supposed to get? Yes, that would be really nice.
AC: A couple of years ago you were somewhat critical of the film "El Cantante" that caricatured the life of your friend Hector Lavoe. What should the film have been about? What do you think Hector would have thought of the movie?
WC: The movie "El Cantante" was a missed opportunity. LaVoe fans were hungry for a film that would go into their idol's life in depth and shine some light on who he really was. It was also an opportunity to show the rest of the world what we're about. What we're saying, what the dance scene is about. A chance to give the world OUR perspective and put us in context. Instead, we got a two dimensional B movie about another Latino junkie.
AC: Your collaboration with Ruben Blades over the years has been legendary. What is the nature of that relationship? Does it still exist today?
WC: Working with Ruben was a painful experience. He is an intelligent man but it's his unbridled ego, ambition, and greed that eroded any real relationship. Einstein left his brain to science; Ruben should leave his ego. We are currently having a dispute about whether he should pay me a large sum of money that "disappeared" when his agent "absconded" with it. Nuff said.
AC: Is there a riff in the Latin music market between Puerto Ricans and Cubans? There is some suspicion that Cuban music heavyweights exclude Puerto Rican artists from industry opportunity, record play, distribution, and exposure. Do you find this true?
WC: Yes, there is, to a certain extent. I have been incorrectly identified as anti-Cuban. Not true. I had a Cuban uncle, I have four Boricubano 1st cousins, my son's godfather is Cuban, I worked with Celia and Justo Betancourt, Javier Vasquez, etc. There were people in the business that wanted to paint me with that brush for business purposes; Jumping on my every word. Like he called so and so's people "a mafia" just like Castro does. As a matter of fact, I have said many times that I won't leave New York because that's where MY mafia is.
Meanwhile, I have never visited Cuba nor do I wish to be used as political propaganda for Fidel. The ideals they espoused were beautiful but when those thing turn into "President for life" it's just plain oppression. Just like what's going on in Venezuela. I don't care how you paint it. If it walks like a dictator and talks like a dictator, it's a dictator.
AC: You are a huge act in Mexico, Central and South America, selling out arenas. Why is it, given the tremendous Latino population here at home where your music originates, that it doesn't happen here? Do you still tour extensively? If not, would you like too? If not, then why not?
WC: Fania had the right track to make that big crossover. Jerry Masucci achieved quite a lot with getting this music on the map. One of the problems we have is that our Latin record companies are being run by Latinos who have a third world mentality about this music. Instead of thinking like world music, they compartmentalize it into a box - like "The Latin Grammy," when it was already part of the real Grammy.
In a way we're our own worst enemy. The Oscars doesn't have "The Latin Oscars" nor do the Emmys or the Golden Globes. We separated ourselves. I do tour occasionally here in the states and would love to do more before it's time to hang up the trombone.
AC: Your last CD "El Malo Vol 2-Los Prisoneros Del Mambo" is your swan song to Salsa. At this stage of the game, do you still have something to say and do you still feel passion in the music? How was the CD accepted by the public?
WC: I still feel very passionate about the music. I am still hopeful that Prisioneros del Mambo will take off. Some of my biggest hits were "slow burners." Gitana took four years to hit! I'm getting good feedback from the record but I am bucking the system as an independent and there is a systematic resistance sown by the multinationals to discourage wildcat producers and labels. You can get it through iTunes and at www.williecolon.com
AC: What would you say is the highlight of your career so far? What has been your biggest disappointment?
Being able to go to Puerto Rico and play for thousands of people. It's like a graduation for me. Abuela would be proud. My biggest disappointment has been my relationship with Ruben. Sometimes I wish it never happened.
AC: It seems that you have turned towards politics over the years. Do you have any more political aspirations? As one of the most prominent Puerto Ricans on the planet, how do you feel about the appointment of Justice Sotomayor?
Yes, I am now active politically as an advisor and liaison to Mayor Bloomberg, going on nine years now. I think it's about time we had one of us looking DOWN from the bench! I couldn't be more delighted about my dear friend Justice Sonia Sotomayor's appointment. Not just because she's Puerto Rican but because of the person she is.
AC: Will there ever be a Latino President? If so, would it make any difference?
WC: I would like to take this opportunity to announce my candidacy for President in the 2012 elections. I will make a difference!
AC: What are you working on right now? What are some things that you still really want to accomplish?
WC: I'm working on a book. I'd like to publish a book and produce a movie. (NOT BE IN IT)
AC: Who has been your greatest supporter all of these years?
WC: Julia has been my strength through all my ups and downs these 33 years.
AC: What advice would you give someone wanting to be the next Willie Colon?
WC: Don't do it! Go back! Forget about that Willie Col??n crap! Seriously, start your thing young but go to school. FIND A MENTOR. Take advice. Listen to people who have what you want. Steep yourself in whatever it is you love. Live it, breath it, eat it, dream it. THEN start to make your own statements.
AC: How do you want history to remember you?
WC: As a man who impacted the world, wasn't afraid to speak up, and could to take a punch.
AC: How has social media changed the way you communicate with your audience?
WC: Social media has been liberating. It has evened the playing field somewhat. Without expensive public relation firms, one can venture out into the "social media" jungle and carve out a niche. You can say things when you have to without being filtered by the powers that be. You can make personal contact with your fans in unprecedented ways.
AC: How do fans and friends react to the fact that you can communicate with them anytime?
WC: Most are very supportive. There are some really cultured, intelligent people out there. Then there are people who think that social media is about being a troll and flaming everyone and everything. But thankfully, you can just un-follow or block the knuckleheads. I love FB and Twitter.
AC: Where do you see new media going when it comes to the socio- cultural development of Latinos in the future?
WC: Social media has given us a voice and the ability to develop a global consciousness. It allows us to share information rapidly as it happens. As it did in China and Iran, social media allows people in the Americas to share their opinions and expose their plight. It is, and will be, an important tool to educate, unify, and advance Latinos.
Check out Willie Colon on Twitter: http://twitter.com/williecolon
Al Carlos Hernandez - Contributing Editor:
Edited by Susan Aceves
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