Dominic Ambrose Blogblot

of words: narrative, film and non-fiction

El Gran Varon: Willie Colon’s story of Simon is 20 years old

williecolonTwenty years ago, one of the great New York salsa artists, Willie Colon, released an album containing what would become an enduring classic of salsa music, as powerful for its message as for its fantastic style, the story of Simon, “El Gran Varon.” Willie Colon (pronounced Colón) was born in New York City in 1950, and became a headliner at venues like the Corso Ballroom and the Cheetah when he was still in his early twenties. Throughout the 1970s and 80s he built up a loyal following for his work with the Fania All Stars and artists like Hector Lavoe. This album, entitled “Top Secret” was his last for the Fania label, and it features Colon with his trombone and distinctive vocals, and his own orchestra, Legal Aliens. The song “El Gran Varon” was not thought of as a potential hit, or at least it was not initially presented as a candidate for such, perhaps because of the risky territory it covered. It was a song about AIDS and the isolation that homophobia and stigmatization bring.

Salsa is a powerful style, capable of expressing a great variety of emotions with its wide repertoire of rhythms, dynamics and tonalities. It has a basic structure but many origins, from African rhythms, to the clubs of Puerto Rico, Cuba, New York and the Caribbean as a whole. The New York style, of which Willie Colon was a leading exponent, was nurtured in its formative years in the jazz world of Manhattan in the forties and fifties (that is, the West Forties and the Nineteen Fifties), where jazz bands and salsa bands would sit in on each other’s gigs. Improvisation and idiosyncratic flair were highly prized elements there, as evidenced by the elaborate solos and characteristic free-form piano bridges.

Willie Colon’s trombone was a part of this tradition but in this song, his innovation is so much more: in the words of a timely, modern and tragic story within the framework of a traditional salsa structure. To my knowledge, he was the first well known artist, singing either in Spanish or in English, to allude so specifically to the horrifying epidemic that was devastating young victims in cities like New York, San Francisco, Miami and San Juan. It was not without its risks. If Caribbean culture has a famously vibrant gay element to it, quite apparent to those with even a passing acquaintance with the culture, it is kept in line and overshadowed by a virulent sense of honor that insists on presenting a macho image to the world. Add to that the stigma attached to this disease, not only in Puerto Rican culture, but in American culture as a whole during that period. It all could have very easily damaged Colon’s career.

Yet, he believed in this song, and with his distinctive metallic tenor voice and the perfect timing and sound of his superb orchestra, Willie Colon renders an unforgettable performance. El Gran Varon became perhaps Colon’s greatest hit and a staple of his concerts. In later years he updated the chronology, moving Simon’s dates of birth and death up seven years to 1963 and 1993. Perhaps he did this to emphasize the ongoing nature of this epidemic, but to my mind, the song is indelibly associated with the 1980s, with the terrible panic and despair of those first few years of epidemic, and of the emotional release that this song brought. Something beautiful could come out of this tragedy, some lesson learned, some community created, all in a great song to dance to and to celebrate life!

The song was recorded in 1988 and became part of Colon’s live show, then the album was released in June of 1989 and El Gran Varon quickly became a staple of salsa radio and disco. Part of its success might be the way that this performance elicits an emotional response without being maudlin, prissy or preachy. It is a difficult balancing act, and the many unsuccessful attempts to duplicate the success of Willie Colon with this material attest to that fact. A film was made in Mexico in 2002 based on this song, “Simon, el Gran Varon.” Unfortunately, this film is widely considered unsuccessful and cartoonish. Other artists have done covers of the song El Gran Varon, but nothing equals the original. I had a link here to a live performance of the song in Venezuela, but it was disabled. At any rate, you can find the song easily on you tube by searching willie colon el gran varon.

The lyrics were written by Omar Alfanno. When you read the words, you get a sense of just how much story has been packed into this one song. It is finely crafted, and quite effective in Spanish, drawing on many familiar sources, from the Mexican proverb about the bent tree to the Bible proverb about casting stones, and even giving elegant form to the lemonade adage attributed to the actress Joan Collins. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to reproduce the smooth prose of these lyrics and remain true to the words at the same time. Here is my English translation, as faithful to the original as the language will allow:

El Gran Varon, The Big Man

In a hospital room,
At 9:43, Simon was born.
It was the summer of ’56,
He was the pride of Don Andrés,
Because he was a boy.
He was brought up like everyone else,
With a tough hand and severity, he never talked back.
When you grow up, you’re going to study the same b.s. like your father.
Listen good, you have to be a big man.

Simon left the country, and far from home he forgot all about that sermon.
He changed his way of walking, he wore a skirt, lipstick and carried a handbag.
People say that one day his father went to visit him by surprise. Wow, what a mistake!
A woman walked by and spoke to him: Hello, daddy, how are you?
Don’t you recognize me? It’s me, Simon! Simon, your son, the big man!

Chorus:
You can never correct nature, the tree that is born bent will never straighten its trunk.

But he cared too much what people would say.
He never spoke to his son again, and he left him forever.

Don’t complain, Andrés, don’t complain at all.
If it’s lemons that fall from the sky then learn how to make lemonade.

Then as the years passed, Andrés thought better,
and he became furious that his son never wrote to him.
Finally he received news about whatever happened to his son,
And Andrés never forgot the day that he received that sad call.

In a hospital room,
With a strange disease
Simon died.
It was the summer of ’86,
And at the bedside of patient number ten,
Nobody cried.

You have to have pity, and quit the moralizing,
Those who are free of sin should cast the first stone.
And he who can never forgive, has the most certain fate,
Of living with his bitter regrets in his own private hell.

September 2, 2009 - Posted by | music | , , , , ,

23 Comments »

  1. Dominic,

    Thank you for this article. Has it really been 20 year?
    Time has flown by so quickly!

    Omar Alfanno wrote the verse but I wrote the
    soneos that resolve the song and give it a heart.

    I felt the verse before my soneos was too hard and mocking.
    Although the death of Simon in the story made me know his intentions were compassionate.

    I had to turn it around and get it there.
    Twitter @williecolon

    Comment by Willie Colon | October 13, 2009 | Reply

  2. A true salsa classic. Gracias Willie for such a important song of the era, and should always been credited in the highest of repect. I hope a director gives this story a chance, as its story and lesson is one that many can benefit. Sigue Pa’ Lante.

    Comment by Mark Medina | October 16, 2009 | Reply

  3. I agree wonderful, song, genra & style… We need more of this nationally. Present day hip hop/pop has no soul. Kudos to the artist & writer.

    Comment by Tony freestyle | December 3, 2009 | Reply

  4. did his son actually die then?

    Comment by willie colon | March 17, 2010 | Reply

    • If you mean the father in the song, yes, the song ends with Simon’s death.

      Comment by dominicambrose | March 18, 2010 | Reply

  5. Pretty good translation! Translation is always a difficult bussiness, you know, and don’t worry about. That said, I respectfully ask you for your permission to reproduce your post in my blog. Not so much people read it, but it will be a grat honor to have it in my blog. Thanks anyway!

    Comment by Dr. sipmac | April 18, 2010 | Reply

    • Hey, Doc, thanks for the compliment. And I like your blog, too!

      Comment by dominicambrose | April 19, 2010 | Reply

  6. For me el gran varon is about forgiveness or lack there of. One could not forgive the other regardless of who was right or wrong and both paid dearly imo. It happens all too often in life! I guess you can take what you want from great songs such as el gran varon.

    They just don’t make songs like this anymore, its all about an image now rather than the music.

    Comment by joseph gonzalez | April 30, 2010 | Reply

  7. Believe it or not, I wrote a poem dedicated to this very song. I think people don’t fully understand how great this song was and I’m glad that others can appreciate the mastery of this ballad.

    Comment by Jose | August 4, 2010 | Reply

  8. In the spanish culture where transsexuality and homosexuality are so taboo
    how did they come up with this song?
    on a side note i get goose bumps every time i hear it.

    Comment by yanelly | September 18, 2011 | Reply

  9. As a gay man for the last 20+ years, yesterday was the first time I heard this song, and I could not stop crying… this song is so timeless and powerful.

    Comment by pablo Garcia | November 17, 2011 | Reply

  10. As a gay man with HIV/AIDS (and still living) who lived in New York from 1987-1999, I loved Willie Colon, and I loved this song. Along with Ruben Blades The Letter and Elton John’s Last Song, this is one of the few really sensitive songs about the AIDS epidemic.

    Gracias, Willie.

    Comment by Paul Halsall | January 3, 2012 | Reply

  11. I remember I first heard this song in Santiago (R.D.); great, incredible ballad. Quickly I associated this song with my one of my brothers, whom I should say was the last summer I saw him wearing men’s attire. This song, of course, was almost like an omen to our disfunctional family. Although fortunately for us, my beloved brother Luis, later Sanji, didn’t pass from AIDS; however he still lives with the disease. What’s even more incredible about this song is how it impacted everyone. Just watch one of his live concerts and see how thousands of people sing along and mourn to Simon. Truly, one of the most important songs of our time…

    Comment by jason gist | March 16, 2012 | Reply

  12. Great song! Well written article. Although I think there is a small error in the translation. Isn’t he singing “Simón ya ni le escribía Andrés estaba curioso” instead of “…furioso”?

    Comment by ma9ma | May 16, 2012 | Reply

    • Hi Magma,
      Thanks for the compliment about the article, it is my pleasure to pay homage to this great song. As for curioso vs. furioso, I have checked with four or five websites where you can see the Spanish lyrics (google “letras simon willie colon”) and all of them have furioso. Of course, curioso would work too, but I don’t think that’s it. bye, D.

      Comment by dominicambrose | May 16, 2012 | Reply

      • You are right about the website s. Most of them use furioso. But this could be a copy and paste thing. If I listen to the song I clearly hear a K sound. For me it makes more sense if he sings “curioso”. Listen here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AMbadRsyq0c&sns=tw

        Well it isn’t really important. This song is so powerfull.

        Comment by ma9ma | May 16, 2012

  13. Hi ma9ma
    I love Willie Colón, and I love this song. I agree with the ones who said it’s one of the best songs ever. About your discussion on the “furioso/curioso” thing it’s necessary to tgink about what makes sense (I am a native Spanish speaker too) and curioso doesn’t. He says that Simon stop writing to his father because he was dissapointed, but he was still his father, so he wanted to know about his son, he was furious because Simon had stopped writing. And although I had sung it many times and was sure it said “furioso”, I checked before writing and it does said “furioso”.

    Comment by Andrea | July 14, 2012 | Reply

  14. [...] I came across this amazingly written article about the song while looking for lyrics on the Internet: El Gran Varon: Willie Colon’s story of Simon is 20 years old [...]

    Pingback by El Gran Varon and musica tropical | Shomi Noise | August 7, 2012 | Reply

  15. [...] to the music; people sing salsa about anything, any drama in the world. Like Willie Colon’s El Gran Varon–it’s a salsa about a transgender guy dying of AIDS in a hospital and it’s one of my [...]

    Pingback by Rosie Herrera in conversation with Celeste Fraser Delgado « Critical Correspondence | April 17, 2013 | Reply

    • Great interview with Rosie Herrera about dance and the things that inspire her art. Colorful descriptions of Hialeah, Florida, too!

      Comment by dominicambrose | April 18, 2013 | Reply

  16. Nice song , !

    Comment by jaira ramos vidrio | June 26, 2013 | Reply

  17. I’m so glad I found this. Thank you.

    Comment by Mariela Isabel | August 2, 2013 | Reply

  18. I came accross this page while looking for the lyrics for this song. Wow, what a great blog and awesome song! I get goose bumps everytime I hear it.

    Comment by Jackie | March 28, 2014 | Reply


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