It took a while for salsa legend Willie Colón to find his way to the trombone. "When I was 8 years old, I was given a recorder from school. I took it home and played on my stoop in the Bronx and wrote tunes on it," he recalls in his Nuyorican accent. Colón then joined the Boy Scouts and began messing around with his troop's bugle (yes, we realize how unintentionally naughty that sentence sounds).
When he turned 11, his abuela bought him a trumpet. He quickly earned a starting spot in all the school bands. But he remembers the day true inspiration hit him like a left hook. "I was playing on the sidewalk with three guys passing the hat around when I heard a roaring trombone solo by Barry Rogers. He became my hero, and I took up my instrument organically."
This Saturday at the Arsht Center, Colón will pick up the trombone to pay tribute to another of his heroes, Héctor Lavoe. Colón points out that if Lavoe hadn't passed away in 1993, he would have celebrated his 69th birthday the day of Colón's interview with New Times. "I always feel he's with me. I play his songs always, so on this night, we're going to play all the hits we played together and the songs I produced for him, like 'El Cantante' and 'Periódico de Ayer.'?"
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Though Colón has always held Lavoe in high regard as a musician, things weren't always simpatico between them when they met in 1966. "We used to compete. When I was 16 and I got my first recording contract, they weren't crazy about my singer, and they wanted Héctor to replace him. We had our differences. He was straight from the island [Puerto Rico], and I was straight from the Bronx. We toured the world together for eight years. When I was 23, I couldn't take touring anymore. I gave him the band and became his producer."
Colón believes the authenticity of their Spanish-language lyrics is the reason their songs have held up decades later. "When we were coming up, most [salsa] songs had lyrics about the old country, whether Cuba or Puerto Rico. We came up like the hip-hop kids writing about life in New York City, about the subway, about drugs. We had good story lines." But in his latest single, Colón rebels a bit against that narrative tradition. His new song "Lupillo Canovana" takes place in 1492. "It's about the Native Americans seeing Columbus' ships on the horizon."
Puerto Rico Beat: The Music of Héctor Lavoe With Willie Colón, Domingo Quiñones, and Isidro Infante. 8 p.m. Saturday, October 10, at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-949-6722; arshtcenter.org. Tickets cost $59 to $154 plus fees via arshtcenter.org.