Sunday, August 05, 2007

El Cantante

I hate to say I was looking forward to checking out the new Jennifer Lopez & Marc Anthony flick.

Not because I'm remotely fond of either's show biz presence, but because the production is based on the life of Puerto Rican born singer Hector Lavoe.

Hector LaVoe was a creation of a macho musical subculture, who did have a somewhat larger than life reputation, not only as a vocalist, but as womanizer, and also a tragic drug addict. He was also, despite all the bravado he exhibited publicly, a relatively vulnerable and fragile emotional being whose life collapsed around him.

After leaving the city of Ponce Puerto Rico at 17 for the glitter of far off Manhattan in the early 60's, he soon realized upon arriving in a poor section of the Bronx, the streets were not necessarily paved with gold.

He hung around musicians, sitting in on gigs, and got his professional start as a referral to hot sh*t trombonist Wille Colon during the boogaloo craze circa 1966, and soon he was amongst the most popular vocalists in the vibrant New York City live salsa scene.

Here's a track from LaVoe's first album with Willie Colon on Fania, a 1967 LP entitled El Malo, it features some of the only tunes they recorded that were sung in English.

Willie Colon - Willie Whopper ( vocals: Hector LaVoe)

They recorded several more albums, many with tongue in cheek gangster imagery on the covers, or allusions to criminal behavior, a popular Puerto Rican stereotype they were happy to play up.
The cover of 1969's Guisando/Doing A Job designed by Izzy Sanabria shows both men on some kind of safe cracking caper. I'll feature the lead off track off from the album which was aided by the piano of Mark Diamond, and plenty of funky percussion work.

Willie Colon - Guisando

By 1975, the two men were going separate ways, with LaVoe's career on it's own trajectory, he was becoming a solo star, with his own following & personality...and need for his own cash, to support his own drug habits. So like Anglo entertainer tag teams like Les Paul & Mary Ford, John Lennon & Paul McCartney, Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, Louis prima & Keely Smith, Jimmy Page & Robert Plant...

the two began going their separate ways.

The last album they'd do together in the 70's was called appropriately "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly", and there certainly were all those thing mixed into these guys personas.

Colon would still help LaVoe out occasionally with arrangements, but they would not share billing for another 8 years.

Hector LaVoe + Willie Colon - I Feel Campesino

The movie about LaVoe that came out this week is called El Cantante, basically meaning the singer, or as one of LaVoe's many nicknames might have elongated it "El Cantante de los Cantantes". That spanish meaning translates as "the singer of singers". The name LaVoe is also a creation, paraphrasing from 'The Voice', a title he borrowed from a previously active singer Felipe Rodriguez's moniker "La Voz".

Here's the song, originally written by Ruben Blades to perform himself, that Hector LaVoe took and made famous as his personal theme in 1978.

Hector LaVoe - El Cantante

Blades, who wrote the track was actually LaVoe's replacement in Willie Colon's group, and supposedly reluctantly conceded the tune to Hector at the time, but admits it was LaVoe's to take after general consensus was LaVoe truly made it his own.

The track originally appeared on the Comedia album, but is also featured on a new collection the Fania label has assembled in time for the film Amongst the tracks on the recently releaed El Cantante collection is a newly done remix of Mi Gente by Louie Vega, who I believe is related to LaVoe. Mi Gente is a track LaVoe used to perform as a featured vocalist with the Fania All Stars. One has to see their amazing early 70's concert in Zaire before the Ali-Foreman fight. I've got a DVD of that thing, and it's an amazing document as they bring the joyous latin music beat full circle to Africa.

Hector Lavoe - Mi Gente [Louie Vega Remix]

Despite all the great music that's in the film, apparently the spectre of the A-list producers/stars, and the story they spin is not winning the hearts & minds of the critical mass. Reviews have used headlines like Great Music Can't Fix`Cantante', and are filled with words like "garish, dispiriting", "falls flat" and worse.

The Village Voice basically reams it not once but twice.

However, I have not seen it, so I'll reserve judgement for now, despite the critical storm brewing against the flick.

I've seen some lame music films in my life, as i'm sure you have. Sid & Nancy anyone?

I wasn't entirely satisfied with the Joaquin Phoenix version of Johnny Cash's life either, as it seemd to spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on Reese Witherspoon, and failed to even mention numerous important & formative incidents in the life of Cash that he himself told in his autobiographies.

I suppose this might just be the Latin equivalent eh?

What's odd is the source of some of the many sour grapes that have emerged spoiling the celebrations for the opening of this rare Latin music themed Hollywood bio pic.

The screenplay apparently attempts to tell the story of one of salsa's great voices, but with a slanted view that many people in the active salsa community have derided. They complain about lapses in accuracy and thematic emphasis, and this comes occasionally from those who actually were paid as consultants on the picture.

Amongst the most damning voices has been Willie Colon, who was Lavoe's collaborator for two decades, and helped launch Lavoe's career.

The LA times ran a piece today with quotes from Colon's email:

"The creators of El Cantante missed an opportunity to do something of relevance for our community," Colón wrote. "The real story was about Hector fighting the obstacles of a nonsupportive industry that took advantage of entertainers with his charisma and talent. Instead they did another movie about two Puerto Rican junkies. . .

Colon and others have bitterly objected to the portrayal of Lavoe's wife Nilda “Puchi” Roman, giving her a far more dominant role in his life than they would have.

When asked what Colon would have liked to see more of regarding LaVoe, he replied:

His sense of humor, Colón said, his agile mind, his sex appeal, his ability to communicate effortlessly with audiences, his loyalty and fearlessness in standing up for what he believed was right.

"I would show why he became so beloved among his fans," said Colón. "This way, when he does fall, the movie viewer will understand him better and empathize with his character."

"It's difficult to comprehend how two individuals who are in the music business like Marc and Jennifer are not aware of the damage and the consequences of promoting only the negative side of our Latin music culture."

Maybe Colon is uncomfortable with LaVoe's lasting memory being less a legendary voice, but more that of an addict, who died in 1993 of complications from AIDS, likely brought on by Hector's decline into intravenous drug use. It's a known fact that Colon was also a junkie as well for a spell...and the two used to use together.
Colon could also be a bit jealous, to see someone who used to be on his pay roll being immortalized, and all those around him left in his shadows.

After his death, LaVoe was practically canonized, one FM station played almost entirely his music for a week. LaVoe's funeral at St. Cecilia's on 105th St was attended by hundred's of marchers who danced & shouted out chants, 'pleneras', and things like "LaVoe Vive! Tu es eterno!" proclaiming his eternal presence in their lives. His funeral procession lasted 6 hours...passing through all the neighborhoods his music once was the soundtrack of before getting to the graveyard at St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx.

According to a new book called Passio & Pain, amongst the mourners was the film's star Marc Anthony, who told an interviewer in 2006 “I was walking out of the church and people started yelling at me,” he recalled in a 2006 interview with eTalk. “‘It’s you now! You’re the new Hector!’ It had to be the scariest moment of my life.”

here's a link to buy the book, which likely will give you more LaVoe, and longer lasting & deeper interpretation for your buck than the film...

Here's a spoken word poem about LaVoe's death by Willie Perdomo

Willie Perdomo - The Day Hector LaVoe Died

It's simply sad but true LaVoe died, the main thing is this music lives on, and Willie Colon will no doubt find many more people interested in his work and legacy beacuse of the picture.

Hector LaVoe - Murga de Panama

Here's links to download more Hector LaVoe music via eMusic, I Tunes
Héctor Lavoe
or just buy some damn Lavoe CDs here...

1 comment:

Chapín said...

Great post. Thanks for the music!
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