Like most of the collaborations between trombonist, composer and musical director Willie Colón and mercurial Puerto Rican singer Héctor Lavoe, the album that you hold in your hands transcends the boundaries of salsa. Released in 1970, "The Big Break" is a masterpiece of Latin music, the kind of formidable artistic statement that established the Fania label as a cultural icon- going beyond the parameters of a company specializing in crowd pleasing dance music.
Needless to say, this is still a great party album, filled with dance friendly classics such as “Barrunto” and “Abuelita”. At the same time, it crystallizes the Colón/Lavoe aesthetic that the duo had been developing on previous albums ("The Big Break" is Colón's sixth release on the Fania label.)
Although they were years away from reaching the artistic zenith of future epics such as El Cantante and Periódico de Ayer, the songs on this collection express the combined strength of these visionary artists: Colón's weakness for an edgy, dangerous sound based on the roughness of his two-trombone lineup. The eclectic tendencies that had him adding revolutionary bits of Puerto Rican folklore on the six minute-long workout “Panameña”. And Lavoe's irresistible sense of humor, which becomes particularly apparent on his nostalgic remembrance of his grandmother (“Abuelita”) and her hilarious sayings.
Most importantly, the songs on "The Big Break" evoke the duo's combined cosmovision, which regards life as a combination of reckless joy and profound tragedy. From the childlike wonder of “Ghana'E” and the grotesque mockery of “Canción Para Mi Suegra” to the fleshy swing of “Barrunto” and the morbid sadness of “No Cambiaré", this session is a roller coaster of intensity- a symphony of contrasting flavors, colors and feelings.
Perhaps the one moment that best encapsulates the transcendental qualities of this collection is the bridge of “Panameña”- the moment when the tune stops on its tracks, Lavoe introduces la salsa de Puerto Rico, el aguinaldo (Puerto Rico's own salsa, the aguinaldo) and all hell breaks loose thanks to Colón's roaring trombone and the spidery piano lines courtesy of the maestro Profesor Joe Torres. The resulting effect is nothing less of apocalyptic.
Of the many brilliant LP covers that graphic designer Izzy Sanabria designed for Fania (the Ray Barretto/Superman art for Indestructible comes immediately to mind), "The Big Break" may be the most notorious one.
Click on the album cover to buy this album on cd or digital:
The art capitalized on Colón's ‘Malo’ image (he was initially called El Malo because the older musicians thought he was a poor trombone player, not a bad kid- Willie then decided to use the gangster archetype as a gimmick.) This time, Sanabria flew with the idea and devised a cover that replicated a Wanted by the FBI poster. Only that the FBI in question was the Freaks of Bureau Investigation, Colón was armed with a trombone and was wanted for killing people... with his exciting rhythm.
Using the project's limited budget to his advantage, the designer included a cheap photo of Colón and random fingerprints to create a realistic looking poster. After its release, the company was contacted by the real FBI, which requested that the ‘Wanted by FBI’ text be removed from the cover.
Listening to these eight, timeless tracks decades after their original release, the music compels you to ask: how could two young men in their '20 have so much to say? How did they manage to record an album of such depth and beauty?
It may be advisable to stop pondering such heady issues and enjoy the music instead. I know I will.
Written by Ernesto Lechner
Ghana'E / Willie Colón
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