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In memory of El Cantante de los Cantantes, Hector Lavoe.

Profile: The Tragedy of Héctor Lavoe

by George De Stefano

Hector Lavoe was determined that his life would not “have a tragic ending,” according to a 1976 interview he gave to Max Salazar of Latin New York magazine.

Things looked good for the brilliant but troubled sonero that year; he told Salazar that he had wrestled with and subdued the demons — drug abuse and other irresponsible behavior — that periodically had disrupted his career. Then, just a year later, the demons took over. Latin New York reported in 1977 that Lavoe had disappeared after cancelling his scheduled concert appearances. No one seemed to know where he’d gone or the exact nature of his problems but, according to the magazine, drugs and spiritualism were involved. One bit of bochinche claimed that Lavoe had turned to santería to help break his addiction but it wasn’t working.

Despite Lavoe’s proclaimed intention not to end up a tragic figure, that’s just what happened to him. Violence, poverty, drug addiction; Lavoe experienced all three, and his death, purportedly from AIDS, was a consequence of the third of those social evils that plague Latinos in los Estados Unidos. Lavoe’s too short life — he died in July at age 46 — was indisputedly a tragedy, and one that met the classical criterion of a gifted, even heroic figure who is undone by his own fatal flaws.

But that’s too harsh. Lavoe certainly was self-destructive, but his tragedy was not entirely of his own making. He also fell prey to larger social forces that oppress poor Latinos living in North American cities, especially Puerto Ricans. Then there were those “friends,” colleagues, and Latin music industry figures who helped him along the path to ruin.

Willie Colón mourned his friend and collaborator in a recent column for the Spanish-language paper Claridad. (An English translation of Colón’s article subsequently appeared in New York Newsday.) Taking no prisoners, Colón lambasted everyone who’d abetted Lavoe’s bad habits and otherwise betrayed and exploited him. Culprits included the fans who were “accomplices to his tragedy” (presumably for winking at his drug addiction and tolerating his frequent unprofessional behavior); the “record moguls who live like Saudi princes selling his records and reselling them as CD's without paying royalties as Lavoe languished in poverty”; the promoters who paid him “crumbs”; the imitators who tried to cash in on his reputation, and the “Latino legal community” that “turned its back when asked to help him.”

Nor did Colon spare himself from this indictment. He pronounced himself guilty of having “betrayed Hector by not having the courage to face him in his condition.”

But which condition? Lavoe’s recurrent drug addiction? The ravages of his illness? Is Colon’s evasiveness a matter of discretion and an unwillingness to “embarrass” Lavoe’s family? If so, those concerns, though well-intentioned, are misplaced. Some things need to be addressed plainly, even bluntly. AIDS is one of them.

If Lavoe did indeed die of AIDS, his wasn’t solely an individual tragedy. Latinos, especially Puerto Ricans, are being devastated by the epidemic. Poverty, lack of health care, discrimination, drugs, homophobia; all ensure that this vicious virus will continue to claim Latino lives, those of celebrated figures like Hector Lavoe as well as the unsung residents of our urban barrios.

If this is to cease, we must stop acting as if AIDS is something shameful that must be hidden. Too often we think we’re protecting someone by denying the truth. But that just perpetuates the unjust stigma surrounding AIDS, imposing an additional cruel burden on those already suffering from terminal illness.

Yes, Hector Lavoe’s life was tragic, but it cannot be reduced to tragedy. The man wasn’t only long-suffering; he also was a gifted creative artist who enjoyed vast acclaim and success. More than just a remarkable vocalist, he was an innovator who, with his compadre Colón, revolutionized salsa in the recordings they made for Fania.

The lyrics of their songs dealt not only with romantic love, but with the social realities of Latino life. “Mi Gente,” written by Johnny Pacheco, became an anthem of ethnic pride. And in the hothouse of creativity that was 70’s salsa, Lavoe, Colón, and their stable of musicians stretched the music’s boundaries as they experimented with jazz harmonies and African rhythms.

Lavoe: Fania Legends of Salsa, Vol. 1, the new double CD retrospective of Lavoe’s music issued by Fania, though comprising only 15 selections from a more than 20-year career, reminds one of how creative salsa used to be, and how formulaic much of it has become.

Arrangements were more complex and the artists liked to take chances with the music, springing delicious sonic surprises on listeners. For evidence of the latter, check the string sections on “El Cantante” and “Periodico de Ayer”, or the drum and piano dialogue that takes the place of a more typical montuno on “Abuelita.” Hear anything like that in today’s cookie-cutter pop salsa?

And then there was la voz. Lavoe, who liked to call himself a simple jibarito, was a sophisticated stylist whose versatility encompassed not only salsa but also Puerto Rican country music, merengue, Mexican rancheras, baladas, and boleros. Lavoe’s tenor, with it’s penetrating edge, could sound both ingenuous and world-weary. On boleros such as “De Ti Depende” and “Un Amor de la Calle” that signature sound, coupled with his total emotional commitment, produced compelling dramas of love and loss. On fast tunes he displayed the rhythmic dexterity and inventiveness that earned him his rep as “the improviser of improvisers.”

For newcomers to salsa, the new Fania set offers a choice introduction to the work of a true gigante de la música Latina. Longtime fans will appreciate having some of Lavoe’s best work in one place, though there will inevitably be complaints about the set’s length (only 80 minutes over two CD’s) and the omissions. For instance, why no selections from Lavoe’s self produced 1981 effort, Que Sentimiento or from his last recording, Hector Lavoe Strikes Back?

And doubtless many will regard the Fania double CD, issued as Lavoe was dying, as the final episode in a saga of exploitation. Why, people will ask, couldn’t this career retrospective have been released when Lavoe might have benefited from it?

Here’s my own fantasy scenario. Fania, in a gesture of generosity and compassion, decides to donate all proceeds from Lavoe to Hector Lavoe’s family and to the Hispanic AIDS Forum.

Yeah, right. Cuando la rana heche pelo.

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