I assumed that seeing Willie Colón: La Historia last Saturday at the Lehman Center in the Bronx would be entirely new territory for me, and I was uncertain whether I would be able to follow my usual practice of publishing a few notes when I see a performer that I enjoy, find interesting, or otherwise appreciate.
What struck me, then, was that even though salsa has been on the edges of my life, and never a part of it, almost everything I heard from Colón sounded familiar. I had heard it all before, somewhere or another: on the radio, from the street outside my window, in bars and restaurants, through TV and the movies. That voice, those words, and that trombone were on my personal soundtrack after all. The Fania album covers projected on the overhead screens were familiar too, and the images of the younger Colón, a mustachioed icon sometimes pictured with fellow luminaries like Rubén Blades (who, I realized, was also lurking somewhere in my memory).
This despite the fact that Colón, a Nuyorican from the Bronx, belongs ineluctably to his own community, and speaks to it nearly on the level of exhortation. I mean “speaks” almost literally, for one of the special characteristics of his voice (which seems not to have changed with his 63 years) is its declamatory, almost speechifying tone, a style accentuated by his gestures, which are casual, almost conversational, a wave of the hand, a finger pointed and jabbed to drive home a point, a shrug, a nod of the head, the action suited to the word, and to the action the word. Everything he does clears away the nonsense and avoids histrionics, and yet somehow he is a showman you can’t look away from, and to whom you want to keep listening.
The salsa he sings and plays feels anthemic, a quality elaborated upon by the Puerto Rican flags that were waved offstage and on. It was, as it happens, the eve of the Puerto Rican Day parade in New York, but I suspect they would have been there anyway, held aloft to the incantatory drive of Colón’s proud and masterly music.
In 2015 Willie Colón will be one of the artists appearing in the RMM Combinations Salsa Anniversary Concert on June 13 at Barclay’s Center. Click here for tickets. Willie Colón may also be visited here.