The Healer: Willie Colón @ 70

The Healer: Willie Colón @ 70

As Willie Colón turns 70 on April 28, we honor his career and, even more important, his sociopolitical impact on music and Latinx identity. The Nuyorican trombonist, composer and bandleader was one of the main architects of the Fania Records salsa sound, through his stellar collaborative albums — among them El Malo, Guisando, Siembra and Canciones del Solar de los Aburridos — with two of the genre’s deities, Héctor Lavoe and Rubén Blades. Yet the music has always been a vehicle used to deliver the often-harsh realities of the Latinx experience in the U.S., and to exercise a consciousness rarely heard in artists of any genre.

“El Gran Varón” is the perfect example of his revolutionary thinking. The song, released in 1989 as a single from Colón’s album Top Secrets, tackles homophobia, machismo and AIDS. “El Gran Varón” follows the story of Simón, a young Latino who, per his father, is destined to follow in his footsteps — because, well, that’s what Latino men do. We have to be manly men, learn our father’s trade, bed as many women as humanly possible and never once shed a tear. Fast forward to Simón leaving his native land and immigrating to the U.S. where, without the pressures of his father, he embraces his sexuality and his true identity.

“If we talk about what organically made the song cross all barriers,” Colón told me in 2016, “it was the use of an ancient proverb as the hook, cleverly used by writer Omar Alfanno, combined with Marty Sheller’s arrangement and, of course, modesty aside, my vision for this song.”

The hook goes, “No se puede corregir a la naturaleza/Palo que nace doblado jamas su tronco enderesa (You can never correct nature; the tree that is born bent will never straighten its trunk).” Remember: This is a salsa song released in the late ’80s. At the time, being gay was often viewed as a disease, or something learned rather than a natural sense of being.

The mark of a classic song isn’t only a danceable beat or a catchy hook — it’s cultural influence as well. Chosen by Billboard as one of the 50 Greatest Latin Songs of All Time, the number closes with one of music history’s saddest scenes. Simón dies from AIDS at the age of 30, in a hospital with no one by his side to see his final breath, embrace him one last time or say “I love you.” (In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the tragic loneliness of Simón’s death seems especially poignant and relevant.)

“When I first heard about AIDS, I thought it was a mean, cruel joke,” Colón said, “even though I had a cousin who was very sick and died on my grandma’s couch. Nobody had a clue. We realized that it was AIDS months after his death.”

A few years after the release of “El Gran Varón,” Colón’s friend and frequent collaborator Lavoe, largely considered the finest salsero ever, also died of AIDS. It was a watershed moment in the Latino community, and one that underscored how you didn’t have to be gay to contract the virus. “El Gran Varón,” then, is bigger than music. It’s a history lesson. It’s a cry for “macho” Latino fathers to accept their sons, gay or not.

“I have to admit I was surprised at the acceptance. I thought it was going to be more of a shock protest song,” Colón said. “But something happened in the production of the song that would make even the hardest dudes get teary. It tells the story of AIDS, and all the victims, including his dad. So straight men could relate as fathers too.

“There are influences far beyond the realm of what we can control that make great art happen,” he continued. “‘El Gran Varón’ was a story whose time had come. I was lucky that fate chose me to tell it.”

They don’t make salsa songs like “El Gran Varón” anymore — and they certainly don’t make salseros like Colón.

Jesús Triviño Alarcón is TIDAL’s senior director for Latin, Global. He was previously entertainment director at Latina, and has written for the New York Daily NewsVibe and People.com, among other publications.

Image credit: Rovi

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