Reviewed by Johan Palme on 22nd December, 2015
Sometimes, the world of Christmas records can seem pretty isolated from the rest of music. There are precious few Christmas records that have had a significant, lasting influence outside their own narrow field. I suppose Phil Spector’s Christmas album is one of them, and the original White Christmas, but if you want real impact, it’s hard to overlook how important Willie Colón’s Asalto Navideño has been for salsa. One of the biggest-selling albums of Fania’s golden era, it launched major hits like “Canto A Borinquen”, “Traigo La Salsa” and especiually “La Murga”, one of the most played and sampled salsa tracks of all time.
But the album’s importance lies, just as much, in the way it cemented salsa’s identity. The genre was born – like trombonist and band leader Willie Colón – in New York City, with a core of local musicians whose parents had emigrated from Puerto Rico, many of who barely spoke Spanish. Like many diaspora genres, salsa borrows widely, melding widely differing influences like ingredients in the sauce (la salsa) – but with Asalto Navideño Willie Colón brings it right home to Puerto Rico again. The album links up with the fascinating Christmas music traditions of the island, bringing in middle-aged cuatro player Yomo Toro and island-born singer Héctor Lavoe, and relishing the essentially home-bound country-dwelling jibaro image that they bring with them. And it brings out the melding and the tension between the new homeland and the old, between the generations, playfully gelling the creole mixture and the identity of being a diaspora musician.
And as fascinating and important as that is, it’s probably not a coincidence that it’s Christmas that provided the key impetus – Christmas music always existed between tradition and modernity. Somehow, the core of Christmas and the Diaspora experience is almost the same: identity and adulthood formed through nostalgia for a lost place.