Mom and dad were not exactly caliente on the idea. “They said, ’No way! Not in this house! If you really want to get into some music, I think you should play the violin,’” Colón continues. “So then I turned around and I said, ’No way! Over my dead body!’ Nothing against the violin per se, but in the neighborhood I lived in, if I walked down the street with a violin, I would have had to fight every time I walked home.”
An eventual truce was called on piano, but Colón’s heart was somewhere else. “My father would clock me in an hour of rehearsal every day. And when he’d turn his back and get up or do something else, I would close the piano and start beating out rhythms!” Colón says, laughing. “But I still do refer to my piano training today. When I see notes in my head, I see the keyboard. It’s a good solid foundation for whatever comes after that.”
Enrolling at American University back in D.C., Colón took full advantage of his new-found freedom. But while his liberated roommates were on the hunt for beer, he was looking around for bongos. Moving off campus, Colón followed a voice in his head and called a student house that had posted a vacancy. “I walked in the door, met the first guy and glanced over in the corner of the living room,” Colón recalls. “There were two conga drums over by the window. I said, ’Yeah, sure. This is it! I’ll take the room!’”
It was only then, with a set of skins finally at his disposal, that the 20-year-old political science student made his first serious foray into drumming. Slowly but surely, Colón began to explore a hobby that would explode into an insatiable passion. Salsa records were jammed “to death,” while he put feelers in every direction, taking advantage of the flourishing musical community that an international city like D.C. hosted. Drummers like Barnett Williams of Gil Scott Heron fame were establishing drum circles in DuPont Circle and Malcolm X Park, and Colón found them.
With agile hands and a keen ear, Colón began to nurture the rare skill that would become a defining facet of his sound – the talent for recognizing potential, not just in people, but in instruments themselves. At one drum circle, Colón saw Williams pick up the shekere, a big hollow gourd shaker that is a mainstay of the maraca family. “When I saw him play, I saw the possibilities of treating that as a major instrument, not just an accessory,” Colón says. “It’s a maraca, but it’s also a drum. The way you use your hand underneath produces a tone similar to a drum. It’s a combination of both.”
Not long after, Colón ran into a Brazilian drummer, and he set his sights again. This time, it was on the berimbau, a quirky Brazilian contraption that comes across as the duck-billed platypus of the drumming world.
“I saw the berimbau, and I was like, ’What the hell is this?’” Colón says, a note of genuine puzzlement still in his voice over 20 years later. “It’s ’string percussion.’ The berimbau is like a bow and arrow, the string is a wire, and you hold the bow vertically. At the bottom side, you attach a gourd, which resonates against your belly. The right hand holds a beater and a straw basket maraca at the same time. And the left hand is holding ... [laughs]. The hardest thing about the berimbau is holding it. That alone took me a good two months.” But those early stumbles eventually led to the mastery of the instrument that Colón now commands.
Another unusual instrument with a Brazilian pedigree that caught Colón’s eye was the cuica – a small drum that is open on one side, with a stick attached to the inside of the drum’s skin. By putting in a hand and stroking the drum stick, a sound is created that can be altered by pressing the skin in the front.
“When you don’t know how to play it, it sounds like a burp or something,” Colón says. “All it did was this low thing: ’Oooooo.’ But I always looked at the cuica as a chromatic instrument, with the possibilities for the full range of notes.” Colón made the friction drum into his own personal piano, developing a technique that allows him to play melodies, and even classical music, on it. Extensive use of the sound can be heard on much of his current work, as on the progressive jazz trombone album Heads And Tales by Ray Anderson’s Alligatory Band.
With his learning curve continuing upward, Colón attended a concert in 1975 that would literally change his life. One Summer day in D.C., the bata master Julito Collazo – one of only a handful of Afro-Cuban master drummers in the U.S. – hosted a workshop. Everyone in the area who considered themselves percussionists showed up to see Collazo. “Nobody,” reports Colón, “was disappointed.”
Colón had his mind blown during the demonstration, yet found the bravado to play the cowbell in the following jam session, and therefore felt he had the right to talk to Collazo afterward. Colón and a friend came away with a prized possession: Collazo’s phone number in New York City.
“It took us a week before we got the nerve to call,” Colón says. “What were we going to say? I’ve heard that guys went through this with Miles Davis, and Miles Davis would lay it to you: ’If you don’t have anything to say, then keep your mouth shut.’ We finally got through, and arranged to come up and start taking lessons from him.”
Colón began commuting from D.C., embarking on a strange, intense relationship with Collazo that was not teacher-student, but master-disciple. “I’d drive four-and-a-half hours to get to his house in Manhattan,” says Colón, “and we’d practice one rhythm.