Willie Colón and Rubén Blades: Siembra

Despite, or perhaps concomitant with, its huge popularity this salsa landmark has too much of Strictly Come Dancing's gloss to hit the musical mark

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In the 1970s salsa really took off, thanks largely to Fania Records and the Fania All Stars, who spread the sound from the clubs of New York to the rest of the world. This album, from 1978, was the best-selling salsa record in history, a collaboration between Panamanian singer/songwriter Rubén Blades and New York Puerto Rican trombonist and arranger Willie Colón.

Colón’s main sound was based on rich layers of trombone riffs, highly rhythmic and danceable. This album seems to have fewer jazz elements than some of his earlier albums like The Hustler or El Juicio, and adopted the (then) current fashion for disco and fusion, evident from the opener, Plastico, a song about the superficiality and falseness of life and relationships.

All the tracks have an emphasis on vocals, often covering socio-political issues – something that might be lost on listeners lacking the necessary language skills. Buscando Guayaba, however, has Blades singing about guava, the tropical fruit, innocent enough but more likely a sexual euphemism. It also has some lively trombone work, presumably by Colón.

Unfortunately, and despite its huge popularity, I found the album oddly disappointing and lacklustre. A lot of the arrangements seem cluttered, noticeably on Siembra, with its brass, strings and vocal choir, and on the over-complicated arrangements of Maria Lionze, going in and out of salsa rhythm and interlocked with choir and chants. Similarly, the multi-layered Pedro Navaja – which purports to blend Kafka, Brecht and West Side Story – at times seems rambling.

Although the trombone arrangements are first rate, as expected, and the brass on Ojos and Dime is tight and attractive, it lacks a cutting edge and tends to be too slick and stylised – shades of Strictly Come Dancing. I found that a little goes a long way.

Discography
Plastico; Buscando Guayaba; Pedro Navaja; Maria Lionza; Ojos; Dime; Siembra (42.18)
Blades (v); Colón, Leopoldo Pineda, Jose Rodriguez, Angel “Papo” Vasquez, Sam Burtis (tb); Jose Torres (p, elp); Jose Mangual Jr, Adalberto Santiago (pc); Jimmy Delgado (timbal); Eddie Montalvo (d, pc); Bryan Brake (d); Salvador Cuevas, Eddie Rivera (b). New York, 1978.
Craft Latino CR00406