Hector Lavoe was, for lack of a better term, a genius. Not only was he probably the greatest singer in salsa history, he was also an insightful songwriter and a gifted improviser, (“sonero”). He was one of the central figures in salsa history, and his outsized personality matched his prodigious talent.
I could have learned this all by growing up in New York City in the late 1960s and the 1970s, but I was on the wrong coast and the only Afro-Cuban music we heard was on my dad’s Dizzy Gillespie discs. I could also have learned this by going to see the recent bio film El Cantante, starring Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez but I skipped it.
There are three essays in this CD’s booklet that all try very hard to convince me of the importance of the man. But they are not needed. The best way to understand the brilliance of Hector Lavoe is to actually listen to the music he made. This two-disc set makes it ridiculously easy by leading with “Aguanile”, one of the most engaging and enlightening songs in the Fania catalog. It begins with jungle noises and Caribbean chants, goes right into dramatic serenades under girded by rising percussion lines, and soon bursts forth into an insanely energetic salsa dance beat. By the time the rowdy horn stings hit, you’re already online trying to figure out how much of your paycheck you can spend on salsa CDs.
But don’t click on anything just yet, because La Voz, (NOT to be confused with Lavoe’s classic 1975 album of the same name), keeps the heat going for another 145 minutes. The first disc is devoted to Lavoe’s collaborations with the trombonist, composer and arranger Willie Colon, and is probably more representative of “classic” Fania salsa music. We get punchy pop numbers like “La Banda” and “Che Che Colé,” that are impressive in their focus, as well as longer showoff workouts like “Timbalero” and “Barrunto,” where everyone gets a solo and Lavoe soars above the band with a voice like Puertorriqeno Jesus. It’s tough music, it’s street music, it’s dance music, and it incorporates jazz changes and rock drama and African depth. Wow.
Disc Two is largely devoted to Lavoe’s solo career in the 1970s and 1980s. These songs are more ambitious and experimental. “El Todopoderoso” brings in regal near-prog horn lines, and goes through about six different meters and time signatures, all in four minutes and 20 seconds. The melancholy in “Periodico de Ayer” is so thick that you could eat it with a spoon. And the epic Ruben Bládes composition “El Cantante,” tight as hell at over ten minutes long, ends up sounding like a sonata for voice and orchestra. This disc also gives a healthy sampler of Lavoe’s work with the Fania All-Stars; an entire history of salsa music can be heard in tracks like “Ublabadú” and “Mi Gente.”
This is a very generous greatest hits collection, and it’s certainly a great place to start. But it is by no means encyclopedic. All I can think of is how much more there is to learn about Hector Lavoe, Willie Colón, Ray Barretto, and all the rest of these talented salsateers. So be warned La Voz is not only beautiful and surprisingly progressive, but it is intensely addictive.