El Gran Varon: Willie Colon’s story of Simon is 20 years old
Twenty 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!
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
It was the summer of ’86,
And at the bedside of patient number ten,
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.
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