The Collaboration of Willie Colón/Rubén Blades at Fania Records

By: Joachim Satet, originally published by
based on an oral presentation by the author to the Listening to Discs Conference sponsored by the Abanico School of Afro-Cuban music, Paris

Translated from the French by: Alison Weinstock, Editor, Rubén Blades Discography

Notice from Music of Puerto Rico editor/webmaster: The opinions of the author in this guest contribution do not necessarily reflect the views of Evan Bailyn, editor and webmaster of this website.

Willie Colon:
When the two men started to work together, Willie Colón was already a star. Born in April 1950 in the Bronx of New York, he began the trumpet at 12 years, before deciding on the trombone at 14 and assembling his own group, Los Dandees.

In 1967, while still only 17 years old, he recorded his first album El Malo, in which he plays the bad boy, using an image of gangster, a little in the manner of certain rappers today. The success of the disc was immediate. The rough sound of the disc, with the slightly dirty low register of the trombones in the brass section, was already characteristic of what salsa would be, to be strictly accurate, 3 or 4 years later.

The young singer of the group was a Puerto Rican named Hector Lavoe. He will take part in 10 albums of Willie Colón, until 1977 (one per annum on average!). Becoming meanwhile a true living legend, he began a solo career before his drug problems caught up with him. Following an overdose, the living legend became an all too brief legend.

In 1977, therefore, Willie Colón also became a star, but he no longer had a singer.

Rubén Blades:
As for him, the course of Rubén Blades is less rectilinear. Already, his parents and grandparents had taken astonishing routes. His paternal grandfather was English (which completely justifies the pronunciation of Blades in the English way, as he does himself), on the maternal side he was from Louisiana. The grandmothers were, on the maternal side, Spanish of Galicia, the paternal side, Colombian. Despite all this mixture, Rubén's mother was Cuban and his father Panamanian. His mother was a singer, pianist and actress of radio dramas, while his father was bongocero and... policeman.

Singing in various groups, he began at the same time studies with the Faculty of Law and Political Sciences of the National University of Panama. Soon his professors prohibited him from appearing in concert, pretexting that that isn't serious for a future lawyer. This didn't prevent him from getting noticed by Pancho Crystal, the producer of Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz and Joe Cuba.

In 1969, the social condition of Panama being particularly disturbed, the army closed the University. Taking advantage that his brother Luis worked at Pan Am (always a family of travellers! and of musicians, another brother, Roberto, just won a 2002 salsa Grammy!), he bought a ticket to New York, for which he paid 20 dollars.

He used his contact Pancho Cristal to finally put his foot in the record industry and recording, in 1970, with Pete Rodriguez (not "El Conde", but "El Rey del Boogaloo") in the album "From Panama to New York", in which he composed 9 titles out of the 10 that he sang. These 9 pieces already show a number of the characteristics of the future compositions of Rubén, as with his style of singing. But the disc did not have any success.

He thus went back to Panama City, where the University reopened, and finished his law studies. During this time, the family circumstances become politically particularly uncomfortable, obliging them to exile themselves to Miami in 1973. Not wishing to follow a legal profession under a military regime, Rubén joined them in 1974, then set out again to New York the same year. In search of work, he benefited from the recommendations of Roberto Roena, who had also heard him sing in Panama, to approach the label Fania Records (the only label to record salsa at the time). In an interview in 1996, Rubén remembers the telephone dialogue which followed:
- Here I am in New York, and I would like to record a few pieces.
- In fact, we do not really need anybody at this moment.
- Ah well, then what do you have? You have something available?
- In fact, yes, we're looking for somebody for the mail...
- That's good, I'll take it!

During 1975, Ray Barretto was looking for a good singer to replace Tito Allen who had just left. Roberto Roena explained to him why the little guy in the mail room sings really well, and Rubén became probably the world's first singer to pass an audition in the mail room in a record company. He sang on the album "Barretto" and the live one which immediately followed, with another singer, Tito Gomez.

He ended up recording one of his songs with Willie Colón, "El Cazangero", inspired by Brazilian music. He sang it on the album "The Good, The Bad, The Ugly", 10th album of Willie Colón, last album of his collaboration with Hector Lavoe. One can note that at the time, the brass section of the recording sessions includes members of the future Blues Brothers.

Metiendo Mano (1977):

Pablo Pueblo / Segun El Color / La Maleta / Me Recordaras / Plantacion Adentro / La Mora / Lluvia De Tu Cielo / Fue Varon / Pueblo

Leopoldo Pineda, trombone / Papo Vasquez, trombone / Lewis Kahn, trombone / Salvador Cuevas, bass / Milton Cardona, conga, clave, talking drum, quinto / Jose Mangual Jr., bongos, maracas, percussion / Nicky Marrero, timbales / Jose Torres, piano / Sonny Bravo, piano / Tom Malone, tuba, harp synthesizer / Yomo Toro, cuatro, acoustic guitar / Rubén Blades, lead vocals, acoustic guitar / Willie Colón, solo trombone

Which brings us to 1977. That's the year when Hector quit Willie's orchestra, which thus engaged Rubén. This one came with a file of compositions under his arm. Of the 9 on the disc "Metiendo Mano", which truly begins the collaboration between the two artists, he wrote 4 of them. The creative process was always the same between the two men: Rubén brings his composition, and it is Willie who decides who will be the arranger (often himself).

Pablo Pueblo:
Characteristic of the songs with Rubén's characters, "Pablo Pueblo" (lyrics) is certainly in significant part responsible for the immediate success of the album. On this piece, some of the features characteristic of the Spanish and Latin-American song are taken again and reworked, in particular those of the song and epic poetry.

The song, in all Caribbean and South America, was long used as social chronicle, holding a little the role that now the television news holds. Frequently one finds texts with the glory of a character in which it describes all the exploits and heroic behavior.

Don Quixote by Cervantés is built on this model, substituting the usual hero with a ridiculous character. Already, the first song of the Pete Rodriguez disc, composed and sung by Rubén in 1970, told of the death of the fictitious guerillero Juan González (probably inspired by Che, who had died 3 years earlier). Another example, there are many testimonies of Cuban, Puerto Rican or Dominican election campaigns where the candidates engaged musicians to compose songs explaining why it is necessary to vote for them, and which are based a little on the same principle, to tell events proposing the exemplary or heroic behavior of a person.

The character of Pablo Pueblo (pueblo = people), on his side, is an everyday hero, who returns home after one working day at the factory, and who wonders how he will make a living for his family with the starvation wage which he earns.

This piece (arranged by Luis "Perico" Ortiz) is the first eruption of the "conscious salsa" on the New York salsa scene. It's a piece which no longer says, "You're so beautiful, baby, come dance with me", but which speaks to people about what they are and of what they live each day.

La Maleta:
In "Maleta"(lyrics), Rubén tells that life in New York is really too stressing and that one is much better in his native land. "Maleta" (the suitcase), it is that of all immigrants, which one is always ready to repack without ever deciding to do it.

Fue Varon:
A song which tells the nervousness of the future father in the maternity waiting room while his wife is being confined. What is really interesting in this piece, is the richness and the quality of Rubén's soneos. For the uninitiated, 'soneos' are the passages where the singer improvises in response to the chorus. Of course, in the case of a recording, it's not really a question of improvisations. The interventions of the singer are prepared, written in advance, sometimes even improved in the studio. But traditionally, this part is improvised, and if it is not the case, it is in any case left to the free interpretation of the singer. There are despite everything some exceptions, as that of Ismael Rivera, who will always take care to preserve on his recordings the same spontaneïty that he has on stage.

Rubén shows here much inventiveness at the rhythmic and melodic level, but also in the humor of the texts of the 'soneos'. For examples, this sentence from the doctor: "Four are born already, we await the 2 others", or this one: "Go tell Tite Curet Alonso (composer of one of the pieces of the album) that the little one spoke, he spoke!".

The other pieces of the disc are:

Segun El Color: sung with two voices with Willie;

Me Recordaras: a bolero sung in a deep register which is not familiar from Rubén, with a very beautiful solo of acoustic guitar of Yomo Toro;

Plantacion Adentro: a piece of Tite Curet Alonso, mythic and very productive Puerto Rican composer, about another character, the Indian Camilo Manrique, killed under the blows of the foreman, where one hears Rubén imitate various instruments (trombone, cuica Brazilian) during the mambo;

Mora: with its structure of 'montuno' alternating short chorus and long chorus, and a Moorish mambo; Lluvia De Tu Cielo: a rather slow piece, with rather lyric 'soneos' and a trombone solo by Willie;

Pueblo: an authentic guaguanco in which percussionnist Milton Cardona, great specialist of the kind, must please.

The characters of Camilo Manrique (in "Plantacion Adentro") and of Pablo Pueblo, closer to the daily events of certain towns of Latin America than of New York, would allow the disc to gain a great success in export. While the imagery and the words of salsa still took their source in Cuba or in Africa, or in the streets of Bronx, Rubén would widen it and seek his topics of choice in the everyday life of the great urban concentrations of all of Latin America. Closer to the public than the afro and/or Cuban phantasms, more universal than the bad neighborhoods of New York.

The quality of the instrumentalists and arrangements is also one of the reasons of the success of this album. One will not see again the legendary José Mangual Jr. But there is on all the Colón/Blades discs the bass player El Salvador "Sal" Cuevas, who started to develop his personal style, inspired by the technique of the slapping bass of funk. The most modern sonorities of his bass playing are a true revolution in the use of this instrument. Sal Cuevas is for the bass players a character as significant as are Rubén Blades or Héctor Lavoe for the singers.

Siembra (1978):
Plastico / Buscando Guayaba / Pedro Navaja / Maria Lionza / Ojos / Dime / Siembra

Leopoldo Pineda, trombón / José Rodriguez, trombón / Angel Papo Vasquez, trombón / Sam Burtis, trombón / José Torres, fender rhodes / Salvador Cuevas, bajo / Eddie Rivera, bajo / Eddie Montalvo, tumbadora / Jimmy Delgado, timbales / Bryan Brake, bateria / Al Santiago, maracas / Willie Colón, coro / Rubén Blades, coro / José Mangual Jr., coro / Adalberto Santiago, coro

In 1978, the second disc collaboration between the two men is released. It has the effect of a bomb in the New York salsero world. It is this disc which will go very quickly gold, and which remains today, according to some, the highest selling disc in the history of this music (information rather difficult to control objectively, because the owner of Fania Records, Jerry Masucci, does not seem to have been a large partisan of transparency).

Already on the preceding album, the duration of the pieces largely exceeds the usual format of the radio operator programmers of the time, around 3 minutes. On this second album, one reaches briskly 7 minutes 20 with "Pedro Navaja". The DJs of the NY radios systematically cut the end of the pieces to respect the usual duration, causing the boards of all the stations to explode under the calls of the listeners who demanded the title in its entirety. But to annoy the DJ is not enough for them: the two men also start to do bookings without intermediaries and the 'conscious salsa', with message, with text, which is listened to as much as it is danced to, does not render service either to the owners of clubs, who sell fewer drinks, because people perspire less with their concerts.

Of the 7 titles of the album, Rubén composed 6 of them, adding a true coherence to the album as a unit. The few defects of the preceding albums are completely erased on this one, with richer compositions with simpler melodies, more consistent texts, and more sophisticated arrangements.

Plástico (lyrics): 1978, it is also the great period of the disco music. The introduction of this piece is a small wink at the fashion of the moment. The words denounce people who sell their hearts to save appearances and to maintain their social status, then rocks suddenly in a call for the unity of the people of Latin America. The theme proceeds with 5 long verses before arriving at the 'montuno', the more danceable part . In a salsa hitherto famous for its frivolousness and its unconcern, "Plastico" serves as scathing political attack.

Buscando Guayaba (lyrics): In this piece, Rubén goes out looking for love. Arrangement is much simpler, the sequence of the parts is academic. But the simplicity of this title makes it possible for Rubén to again show his inventiveness in the 'montuno', which arrives very quickly after a rather short theme. It starts, in a traditional way, by a brass solo, in the event the trombóne of Willie. Rubén slips into the piece a vocal imitation of a guitar solo, before adding his voice to the brass section riffs, as he often does.

Pedro Navaja (lyrics): Arranged by Luis Perico Ortiz, Pedro Navaja is a small jewel in more than one way. It is still a title which speaks about the everyday life of the great urban concentrations of all America, North and South. It's the story of a small gangster, of whom the song makes us a very successful portrait, who attacks a prostitute. In the aggression, the girl defends herself by shooting Pedro Navaja. They both die, while a drunk finds the bodies, searches them, and sets out again while singing out of tune what immediately becomes the chorus of the following 'montuno'.

Based on the history of "Mackie Messer" of The Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weil and Bertold Brecht, become a jazz traditional under the title "Mack The Knife", sung among others by Ella Fitzgerald, adapted into Brazilian in "Opera do Malandro" and in French by Bernard Lavilliers under the title "Pierrot La Lame", "Pedro Navaja" is built in a very sophisticated way. It starts with an instrumental introduction, with police siren intended to put to us directly in the environment. Then, the instruments enter progressively to accompany Rubén: congas on the first verse, the bongo and the timbales on the second, the bass and the piano on the third, and finally brass on the fourth. The entry of the brass makes the tonality of the piece rise a semitone. This rise, which is used to gather the dramatic and musical intensity, will be reproduced on the sixth, eighth and ninth.

Siembra, finally, the last piece of the disc, the title song, is a proclamation which says, in substance: "Sow if you wish to reap something, but never forget that the fruits that you will obtain will depend on the seed".

In 1988, Rubén will put a new version on an album entitled "With Strings" which, as its name indicates, was recorded with a string orchestra. Syrupy and kitschy, it keeps only the original melody line, and transforms the piece into a languorous bolero.

The other pieces of the disc, Maria Lionza, Ojos and Dime, all three excellent, are a little less diversified than those of the album "Metiendo Mano". At the time, it was common to record discs including a little bit of everything (as is done again today). One will remember the bolero and the rumba of the preceding disc. Again this is one of the commercial obligations to which the duo did not want to yield, recording a coherent disc here, presenting a true unit, and closing the circle in a certain way, the two songs with messages being located at the opening and the conclusion. A way of designing a disc which will be fully exploited, two years later, in following recordings.

El Cantante (Héctor Lavoe, lyrics): 1978, year of the release of "Siembra", is also the year when the album "Comedia" by Héctor Lavoe was released. Produced by Willie Colón, this disc contains a song written by Rubén Blades, which he had wished to use for himself. At a moment where Héctor Lavoe had to relaunch his career following many personal problems, Rubén decided to offer it to him, trusting that Héctor would make something of good of it. When one remembers that Rubén wrote 6 of the 7 songs of "Siembra", one may suppose that "El Cantante" was originally to be recorded on this one, and that it was exchanged with another intended originally for Héctor. An assumption which engages only me, because I have not found anything to confirm it.

At all events, "El Cantante" is THE piece that everyone continues to associate with Héctor, and constitutes, with its arrangement 10 minutes 20 all in a syrup of violins, an excellent example of what one can do with string instruments without falling completely into commercial kitsch. The words speak about the role of the singer and the difficulty in assuming it. The public waits for him to make them forget their sorrows and their concerns for a time at a concert, while nobody bothers to know if he is himself happy.

In 1986, Rubén reappropriated the piece on the album "Doble Filo". In his version, the violins disappear, the rhythm is a little more energetic. To compare the two pieces, in particular the 'soneos' of the two singers, it becomes completely interesting for somebody who does not know salsa well. As we saw in a preceding piece, the singer has a part, the 'montuno', on which he improvises his text, its rhythm and its melody, giving free rein to his imagination and his qualities as interpreter.

It is obvious that, during the recording of a disc, this part is not really impromptu. But the 'soneos' do not form part of the text of the song, even when they are prepared and not impromptu, it is the singer who decides on them. And in the case of "El Cantante", the 'soneos' of Héctor - quasi lyric, and those of Rubén - more rhythm, give to the piece a completely different colour.

Apart from the simple musical differences, it is in the texts that the difference is notable. Héctor answers his critics, quotes the singers who inspire him and takes again the theme of the text which precedes, insistent on the fact that while singing, he helps the public to forget their concerns. For his side, Rubén uses the 'soneos' to explain what justifies him in singing: to depict the life in the popular districts of the large towns of all America, the South and North, and to be the voice of a population to which one never gives a voice. A profession of faith which makes it possible to understand the political career that Rubén will carry out a few years later.

The following year seems to be devoted (apart from the publication of a solo album for each artist), as far as I could judge, with a tour of all America. In New York, the reception was excellent, and the concerts brought out more than the usual groups only directed towards dance. But it is in Latin America that success was enormous, the public having the impression of finally receiving a group who was concerned with what happens outside of Puerto Rico and New York.

February 10, 1979, in particular, Rubén and Willie took part, in company of Héctor Lavoe, Celia Cruz and Tito Puente, with one of the historic concerts in the history of salsa, known under the name "Combinacion Perfecta", in Radio City Music Hall of New York.

Maestra Vida Primera Parte:
Prologo / Manuela / Carmelo (Parte I) / Como Tu / Carmelo (Parte II) / Yo Soy Una Mujer / La Fiesta / El Nacimiento de Ramiro / Dejenme Reir (Para No Llorar)

Maestra Vida Segunda Parte:
Epilogo / Manuela, Despues... / Carmelo, Despues... / El Velorio / El Entierro / Maestra Vida / Hay Que Vivir

Leopoldo Pineda, trombone / José Rodriguez, trombone / Lewis Kahn, trombone / Reinaldo Jorge, trombone / Willie Colón, trombone / José Torres, piano / Milton Cardona, tumbadora, quinto, claves / José Mangual Jr., bongos / Salvador Cuevas, bass / Johnny Andrews, timbales / Rubén Blades, vocals, acoustic guitar, maracas, percussion / Adalberto Santiago, maracas, coros

On the impetus of "Siembra", the two men came to explore this idea of coherence in discourse in the whole of an album (and even of two), by producing together (although only the name of Rubén is reproduced on the cover) a concept album, which extends on two 33rpm discs sold separately as "Maestra Vida", which tells the life of a family in two generations. Built almost like opera, with instrumental introduction and short scenes of dialogue between songs, this double disc approaches serious themes, like death, loneliness of grandparents who wait for visits of their grandchildren and who end by dying forgotten by all, but also lighter, in short, life in the 'solar' (community dwelling) of any city of America, with the birth of kid celebrated by the whole building (paying close attention to the furniture because one did not finish paying for them), the dialogue of people who find themselves at the cantina on the corner, etc. It is a certain Cesar Miguel Rondon who wrote the text of the narration and the dialogue. He was, a few years later, the author of the book at my bedside, "El Libro de Salsa. Crónica de Música del Caribe Urbano ".

Canciones Del Solar De Los Aburridos:

Willie Colón/Rubén Blades
Canciones del Solar de los Aburridos
Tiburon / Te Estan Buscando / Madame Kakalu / El Telefonito / Y Deja / Ligia Elena / De Que ?

Johnny Andrews / Rubén Blades / Sam Burtis / Milton Cardona / Willie Colón / Salvador Cuevas / Jimmy Delgado / Andy Gonzalez / Reynaldo Jorge / Lewis Kahn / José Rodriguez / Joe Santiago / Joe Torres

The following disc dated 1981 is located in the same 'solar' as the double album preceding, El Solar de los Aburridos (of the bored men), and picks up all the stories which happened to the neighbors of the family of "Maestra Vida". If "Tiburon", "El Telefonito" and "Ligia Elena" knew a great success, the album is much less inventive and revolutionary than the three precedenting. One can nevertheless note, in Ligia Elena (lyrics), the permanence of texts on social matters. Ligia Elena is a girl of good family, intended to marry a doctor or a lawyer, who flees from it with a black trumpeter. While the mother deplores her sad fate, she who dreamed to have "grandchildren with fair hair, eyes and teeth", all the other rich girls of the district wonder when their trumpeter will come.

Apparently, after having replaced the guitar and the trombone on the discs preceding, an instrument was still missing for this piece, because all the mambo is from singing over the trombones. I particularly like the choruses of this piece, where the whole family, asphyxiated by the story of Ligia Elena, cries with despair, and the chorus which makes just "Mmmmm Mmmmm" while Rubén plays the distressed mother.

The Last Fight:
Yo Puedo Vivir Del Amor / Andanza / Cimarron / What Happened / Venganza / Y Tu Abuela

Johnny Andrews / Rubén Blades / Milton Cardona / Willie Colón / Jimmy Delgado / Lewis Kahn / Luís Lopez / Leopoldo Pineda / Eddie Resto / Joe Torres

For Rubén, who started to have some problems with Jerry Masucci, the founder and owner of the label, it became urgent to finish quickly with his contract. This album was recorded quickly. It is in fact the original sound track of a film in which Rubén plays the role of a boxer. It is for him the first of a long series, since he acts regularly in cinema, in particular in "Milagro" of Robert Redford, "Predator 2" of Stephen Hopkins or "the Color of the night" of Richard Rush, known primarily to be the film where one sees Bruce Willis very naked. He also played in an episode of "X-files" and holds a recurring role in the hospital series "Gideon's Crossing" which one can currently see on the cable. [in France]

Musically, the album is not famous (it is the only one that he says he regrets having made in his career), but the orchestra never manages to be completely bad, and one can save the piece "What Happened" in spite of the fact that Rubén tries to sing in English. The chorus is in English also ("What happened? I don't know"), which is rather unusual but finally rather funny. It is apparently the story of the drunk who discovered the body of Pedro Navaja in the album "Siembra". As such, Rubén has continuity in his ideas, since he also recorded in 1988, on the album "Escenas", the song "Sorpresas", in which one learns that in fact, Pedro Navaja did not really die.

The last concert of their collaboration took place in Berlin in 1982. During their collaboration, Rubén found time to record another disc and Willie, 3 (including one with Celia Cruz), and their careers continue to this day. Since these 6 discs recorded together, Willie recorded 12 and Rubén 15. After having discovered Hector Lavoe and Rubén Blades, Willie Colón has discovered only the desire for singing, which he has done on all his discs. In 1995, Sony decided to join them together, them and all the musicians of the great time of their collaboration at Fania. The disc which results from it, "Tras La Tormenta", is far from being as interesting as those of the years 77-82. In fact, as Rubén says moderately, the recording could not be done as he would have wished. Behind this very diplomatic declaration hides the fact that at any time, the two men could not record together. Of 10 pieces, only three are sung by the two musicians, thanks to editing in the studio.

But the year of the release of "Tras La Tormenta" is one special year for the two men, because they each had an exhausting election campaign. Willie Colón was indeed a candidate in the senatorial elections of New York, while Rubén Blades, after the departure of Noriega, was a candidate in the presidential election in Panamá, where he obtained an honorable third place, losing votes because he had lived in New York too long a time. But here, in four discs (the last two not having the same historical importance), Metiendo Mano, Siembra, Maestra Vida 1 and 2, is the story of a small revolution.

Here is how salsa, appearing around August 26, 1971 at the Cheetah Club, arrived at adulthood, passed from the unconcern of its usual topics to the conscience of the social background which gave it birth and life. Here is how a music, which was used to celebrate to forget the reality of the life of the poorest fringe of the urban population of the Americas, will use this same reality to include it in its creative process. An attempt which furthermore one can only regret that will be followed only very little, in spite of its obvious success.