Willie Colón Brings Back a Very Nuyorican Christmas

Willie Colón presents his show “Asalto Navideño” on Saturday at Lehman Center.

Willie Colón and his orchestra are back with “Asalto Navideño” (Christmas ‘Assault), a Puerto Rican tradition consisting of a surprise visit by musicians to someone’s house in the middle of the night – and an album whose repertoire has transcended generations and contributed to consolidating the careers of two greats who are no longer with us: Puerto Rican musicians Héctor Lavoe and Yomo Toro.

Now a December tradition, Lehman Center lights up on Saturday, Dec. 9, to present one of the Bronx’s favorite sons, who will reprise traditional “aguinaldos” (Christmas songs) in Puerto Rico –  and bomba and plena rhythms to kick off the holiday season.

“Christmas is the time when we express all that is positive, our hopes and dreams as individuals and as a people. These are the things that I as a Nuyorican find endearing and that reaffirm our roots,” said Willie Colón in an interview with El Diario.

Born and raised in the Bronx, Colón has had a career spanning more than 50 years that has earned him 15 gold and five platinum records and 11 Grammy nominations. He said that Christmas is also a time for nostalgia and history, and evoked the way he came up with the idea of rescuing Puerto Rico’s popular music and creating the concept for the “Asalto Navideño” albums.

“I grew up hearing my grandmother Antonia Pintor sing. She was from Manatí, and she would sing jíbaro [countryside] music. But we, the fans of what we call salsa, were more inclined toward jazz, Tito Puente, boogaloo and rock, which was going through its heyday. When we sang something like that, people would laugh at us and call us jíbaros (peasants).”

In those days, Héctor Lavoe had already landed in the Big Apple and was part of Colón’s band, he remembered, adding that he was obsessed with Puerto Rico’s music.

“With Héctor, I found the key to incorporating that music. I knew that, if I was able to present this music in a way that everyone liked it, we could be successful, and that’s what happened,” said Colón, also known as the “King of Trombone.” “As the good jíbaro he was, Héctor knew the whole repertoire, the right way to sing it, to feel it, and I would turn to him if I had any questions.”

The perfect storm

Still, it would not be until Puerto Rican cuatro guitar player Yomo Toro entered the scene that “the perfect storm” occurred, as Colón calls it.

“I remember that I used to visit my mom where she worked at 149th Street and there was a place called the Campana Bar next door. I would always read the names of the people who would be performing there. That night, it was Yomo Toro, the most famous cuatro player in the world, and that was my world.”

Yomo Toro, Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe.

One day, as Colón was beginning to shape the project, he asked Lavoe if he knew Yomo Toro and if he could get in contact with him.

“Héctor went and brought him in almost immediately, and it was from that combination that the tunes in ‘Asalto Navideño’ came about, which are now part of history,” said Colón, as if the encounter had happened yesterday. The album’s two volumes were recorded in 1971 and 1973, and their best-known songs are “Borinquen,” “La murga,” “La banda,” “Traigo la salsa” and “Arbolito.”

“Yomo had been involved with this type of music all his life. I had in mind forming a marriage between New York’s street music and the Puerto Rican aguinaldo, and Héctor had a good handle on both of them. From the start there was a lot of chemistry, a lot of magic, we didn’t have to force anything. Once we started, everything flowed and grew by itself.”

Almost 50 years later

This year is the 46th anniversary of “Asalto Navideño,” a production that had a great impact, not just on Puerto Rico and Latin America but across the Spanish-speaking world.

“We created holiday music because it has so many good things, and it arrived at a moment that is part of our history and traditions as immigrants.”

Cover of the “Asalto Navideño” album

Colón explained that the term “asalto” comes from the Puerto Rican tradition to gather with family and friends to visit someone else’s home by surprise.

In 2015, Billboard magazine named Colón one of the 30 most influential Latino artists of all time. Colón, also an actor and producer, announced that he will bring a cuatro player from Puerto Rico for Saturday’s concert.

“We are going to dust off all that Christmas repertoire that we can’t play the rest of the year. This is something the musicians in my orchestra love, because it involves a different feeling during the season.”

Finally, Colón revealed that he is currently working with Puerto Rican writer Mayra Santos-Febres on his autobiography, to be called “Barrio de Guapos” (tough guy neighborhood) which is practically finished and in the phase of defining which publishing house will release it. The first version will be released in Spanish and later published in English.

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One Comment

  1. My name is Carlos FELICIANO and I was bount up with Willie Colón a Héctor Lavoe music.they are both legends of Latin music.i miss there music.i play congas and follow willie music his a master and one of the Best!

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