Willy Chirino Talks Celebrating 50 Years in Music With First Album in Over a Decade, ‘Sigo Pa’lante’

Willy Chirino is celebrating his 50-year music career with a series of tributes, activities and releases — including a mural in Miami’s Calle Ocho, a street with his name in New Jersey, a museum exhibition, a concert and a new album.

The singer-songwriter behind salsa classics like “Medias Negras” and “Pobre Diabla” was waiting for the right moment to release Sigo Pa’lante, his first studio album in more than a decade, which finally came out in December. With reggaetón becoming more and more entrenched in popular taste, he says he was taking his time to study the landscape.

“There was a transition in music after my last album that was very dramatic,” he explains to Billboard Español about his hiatus. But the 50th anniversary, with all the fanfare and the news surrounding it, was the perfect occasion to release the album he’d been working on for the past three years.

Although he wasn’t really hibernating — in recent years he’d released an album of traditional Latin American songs with his wife Lissette (Amarraditos), two Christmas albums (Llegó la Navidad and Willy & Lissette Navidad En Familia) and other covers sets (My Favorites and My Beatles Heart) — Sigo Pa’lante (which means “I keep going”) is his first project of new music since 2008’s Pa’lante.

Composed of 12 tracks, it opens with the joyous “Imagínate” and includes collaborations with Gilberto Santa Rosa (on the first single “La Música”) Leoni Torres (“Para Mi Viejo”) El Chacal (the album’s title track), Lissette (“Mi Corazón Es Un Pueblo”) and his daughter Jesse (“Agua De Marzo,” a cover of the Brazilian classic “Aguas De Marzo” by Antonio Carlos Jobim).

It closes with an anthem of freedom for Cuba, “Que Se Vaya Ya,” a song as energetic as it is emotional, released in September 2021 with contributions from Lenier, Micha, Chacal, Osmani García and Srta. Dayana. “Let them take all the bad things/ Let them go, let them go/ We can’t take the beatings anymore/ Let them leave now/ Because the people suffer and keep quiet/ Let them go, let them go/ Let them take the shrapnel/ Let them go now ”, they sing in Spanish.

Chirino, in fact, dedicates Sigo Pa’lante to his fans in Cuba, where he says that people continue to listen to his songs “despite all the mishaps they have suffered to do so.”

“They’ve payed a price that is not money, because listening to my music for a long time was totally prohibited,” the artist continues, adding that “when they found them listening, [the authorities] beat them, imprisoned them, took their boomboxes away. In other words, they were mistreated simply for the fact of listening to my music. So that for me has a special recognition”.

Although he clarifies that his songs are not currently banned in his native country, he says that his anti-Castro stance has made him persona non grata, and that his requests to perform in the island have never been answered.

Chirino debuted in 1974 with the album One Man Alone, and has released more than twenty albums since — but his career began earlier, as part of different bands and orchestras. The 50th anniversary dates back to 1972, when he says he began to use his own name when creating music as a solo artist.

On the Billboard charts, he’s scored 13 entries on the Tropical Albums listing, seven of which reached the top 10: Sarabanda in 1986, Acuarela del Caribe in 1990, Oxígeno in 1991, South Beach in 1993, Cubanísimo in 2005, Pa’lante in 2008 and Llegó la Navidad in 2012. He’s also had six entries on the Hot Latin Songs chart, two on Latin Airplay, and two on Top Latin Albums.

To mark his half century in music, the winner of awards such as the Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the Billboard Latin Spirit of Hope Award has been honored in his adoptive city of Miami with a mural in Little Havana’s Calle Ocho. The 60 by 55 foot work was commissioned by the Miami Mayor’s Office to Chilean artist Alexandra Seda and was unveiled on October 28.

Additionally, the city of West New York, NJ paid tribute to Willy Chirino on December 15 by naming a street after the Cuban salsa star. Accompanied by personalities such as Paquito D’Rivera, the singer (along with mayor Gabriel Rodriguez) unveiled the blue sign for the Willy Chirino Way — at the corner of 54th Street and Boulevard East.

Willy Chirino (left) and mayor Gabriel Rodriguez during the street naming ceremony in honor of Chirino on Thursday, December 15, 2022, at 54th Street & Blvd. East in West New York, NJ

And the celebrations continue in 2023 with a retrospective exhibition of his career at the HistoryMiami Museum that will be open to the public from January 27 to September 10, and a big concert on March 11 at the James L Knight Center in Miami.

“It really feels great, and to see the people’s reaction is really beautiful,” says Chirino. “I thank God for this extraordinary life that he has given me … For having my family healthy and well, but also for the number of people throughout the world who listen to my music, who dance to it — because that’s what it was made for.”

Willy Chirino, "Sigo Pa'lante"
Willy Chirino, “Sigo Pa’lante”

Sigal Ratner-Arias