PUERTO RICO: Asalto Navideño - Willie Colón & Hector Lavoe
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
Regardless of its festive feel, the duo's fun Christmas album is listenable all year round thanks to its many catchy tunes
Around six years ago, I heard someone, who I thought was a reasonable person, say something so ridiculous that it still enrages me to this day. He said “Michael Bublé is only good around Christmastime, during the other 11 months of the year I never want to hear any of his music.” This claim frustrated me so much, as unlike Slade, Wizzard, and Band Aid, I felt that Bublé was an exception to the unwritten rule that an artist so heavily associated with Christmas music cannot be listened to and fully enjoyed outside of the Christmas season. His comment did make me think about Christmas music that is listenable outside its context, and over the course of this project, I discovered that there is an album made specifically for the festive season which can be and should be appreciated all year round.
“Furthermore, despite being a Christmas album, which in English-speaking nations often implies a certain tackiness to the music, Asalto Navideño is close to reaching the zenith of the entire genre of Salsa itself.”
Welcome to the notion of Christmas Salsa music, perfected by the duo Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe. For any readers here in the UK, this might sound like an unusual phenomenon. Perhaps when you imagine Christmastime you might paint the image in your mind of a robin perched on a frosted branch of a tree. Admittedly our Western portrayal of Christmas does not exactly scream typical ‘salsa-vibes’, but we rather ignorantly often forget that for the nations in the Southern Hemisphere, Christmastime is summer. Not only does the festive season take place in summer for numerous countries, but in many places near the equator, even when it is nominally winter, Christmas is a rather tropical affair. In fact, in Lavoe’s native Puerto Rico the minimum average temperature in December is a scorching 23°C; a far cry from Bing Crosby’s dreams of a ‘White Christmas’.
For me Asalto Navideño is the perfect antidote to how one might imagine the societal soundtrack of Christmas in New York City, the place where the album was released in 1970. In some ways this album was more than just a harmless piece filled with fun Salsa tunes. It was perhaps a way for Latinos listening in the United States to feel like they were sticking two fingers up to the preconceived notion of how Christmas ‘should’ be celebrated in the commercialist hegemony, and instead allowed them to be reminded of the equally joyous, and arguably more energetic, traditions of celebrating back in their homelands. As a Latino, if you were listening to this album, it would not matter if you were from Nicaragua or Paraguay, the album in itself acts as a wonderful homage to the spirit of Latin America as a whole.
Nevertheless, the album still has its roots firmly in Puerto Rico. The second track Canto a Borínquen is a song dedicated to Borínquen, a term Latinos colloquially use to refer to Puerto Rico because The Tainos, called the land ‘Borínquen’, which means ‘Land of the Valiant Lord’, before the Spanish arrived. Furthermore, the album features for much of it the inclusion of Yomo Toro, who plays the Puerto Rican cuatro, a string instrument native to his homeland.
Furthermore, despite being a Christmas album, which in English-speaking nations often implies a certain tackiness to the music, Asalto Navideño is close to reaching the zenith of the entire genre of Salsa itself. It contains at least four undeniable earworms, the aforementioned Canto a Borínquen, Traigo La Salsa, my favourite track Aires De Navidad and La Murga. The last of these is a dedication to a musical tradition from Panama that could be heard in their carnivals of the 20th century and shows off an incredible musical ability particularly. It includes arguably my favourite trombone solo ever by Willie Colón himself.
For a short album to leave such an impact is truly a testament to its quality. It comes as no surprise that Lavoe and Colón’s album is the best-selling Christmas album in the history of Latin American music. What’s more, the pair left their audience clamouring for more Christmas Salsa music, to the point where three years later they were pressured into releasing Asalto Navideño, Vol. 2. So, if you want to taste some tembleque after your turkey, if you want to hear top quality Salsa after the Secret Santa, or you simply just want to try out Puerto Rican music that is a far cry from reggaeton, then Asalto Navideño is definitely the album for you. It is fast, it is fun and it is full of musical talent. What more could you want?