[19 January 2011]
During its ’70s heyday, the New York-based Fania Records was often called “The Latin Motown”. As marketing hooks go, it wasn’t a bad one. Like Berry Gordy’s company, the label founded by Dominican flutist Johnny Pacheco and Italian American attorney Jerry Masucci was a reliable hit factory whose stable of talent created a distinctive sound that couldn’t have come from anywhere but its hometown.
(The Fania-Motown analogy works for another, less salutary reason: just as a number of Motown artists complained about Berry Gordy’s management style and business practices, so did Fania stars – particularly the singer-songwriter Ruben Blades – blast Jerry Masucci for ripping them off.)
There is, however, a crucial difference between the Detroit music machine and the Manhattan salsa factory. Though both produced “ethnic” music, Motown’s African-American pop had broad crossover appeal. It indeed was “the sound of young America”, as the company proclaimed. Fania’s appeal was mainly to Latinos, in both the U.S. and Latin America, with smaller followings among English-speaking blacks and whites.
Fania took Afro-Cuban and other Caribbean Latin music to new heights of creativity and excitement, infusing tropical idioms with Big Apple energy and intensity. The company also was largely responsible for popularizing the term “salsa”, which many musicians disliked. Tito Puente scornfully remarked, “What’s ‘salsa’? You eat salsa, you don’t dance to it.”
“Salsa” was a catchall designation for a variety of mostly but not exclusively Cuban styles – mambo, guaguancó, cha cha cha, rumba, guaracha, son, but also Puerto Rican bomba and Dominican meringue, along with some South American flavors like tango and cumbia. Fania’s productions didn’t dilute the tipico quality of the music. But they often enhanced the old recipes, by incorporating jazz, R&B, and rock, or by combining different dance rhythms to create new hybrids, or by exploding the three-minute song form with extended, multi-part compositions like Hector Lavoe’s 10-minute masterpiece “El Cantante”, written by Ruben Blades. Fania even released “concept albums”, like Blades’ Maestra Vida and pianist-bandleader Larry Harlow’s “salsa opera”, Hommy.
In his notes for Salsa Explosion: The Salsa Revolution 1969-1984, a compilation of 15 Fania tracks newly released by the reissue label Strut, journalist Ernesto Lechner hails Fania for producing “some of the most moving, heart-wrenching, soulful and devastatingly funky dance music you are likely to find anywhere on the planet.” Lechner’s encomium cannot be disputed. Just consider this partial roster of Fania talent: Celia Cruz, Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colon, Joe Cuba, Ruben Blades, Hector Lavoe, Machito, Ray Barretto, La Lupe, and Pacheco. Then there was the house band, featuring such stellar players as Larry Harlow, trombonist Willie Colon, Yomo Toro, a virtuoso on the quatro (a Puerto Rican stringed instrument similar to a mandolin), bassist Bobby Valentin, and percussionist Roberto Roena.
Johnny Pacheco, the key artistic figure at Fania, fell in love with Cuban music when he was growing up in the Dominican Republic. Relocated to Manhattan, Pacheco teamed up in 1964 with Jerry Masucci, a Latin music fan and the attorney who had handled Pacheco’s divorce. (Masucci later bought out his partner and retained control of Fania until his death in 1997.) Their new label’s first release was Pacheco’s “Cañonazo”. When Pacheco started having hits, his success lured other artists to the label.
Salsa Explosion: The Salsa Revolution 1969-1984 opens with “Che Che Cole”, from Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe. Adapted from a Ghanaian children’s song, its gritty, on-the-corner atmosphere, bomba cum calypso rhythm, and catchy chorus made it a big hit, the duo’s first. The record introduced a signature sound that would become enormously popular: Colon’s trombone, instead of a full horn section of brass and reeds, weaving around Lavoe’s incisive, jibaro (country) vocals.
Lavoe and Colon are represented by two more brilliant tracks, “El Poderoso”, with its sophisticated arrangement and Lavoe’s inspired sonerismo (vocal improvisation), and the magnificent “Todo tiene su final”. When, on the latter, Lavoe leaps back in after an extended jam featuring Colon’s trombone and Harlow’s piano, he hits the stratosphere.
Celia Cruz, the queen of salsa, appears only on two selections, but both are terrific.
On “Pachito Eché” with Tito Puente, she’s in top, vivacious form, her horn-like phrasing and rhythmic suppleness on full display. Even better is “Cucala”, with Johnny Pacheco. It’s one of La Cruz’s most popular numbers. But she actually had to be coaxed into recording it, as Puerto Rican salsero Ismael Rivera had scored a hit with the tune and she doubted she could do it as well.
“O Mi Shango” by the great Cuban-born percussionist Mongo Santamaria is not salsa but Afro-Cuban jazz, built around a lucumí chant to the titular Yoruba deity. Boogaloo, the hybrid of son montuno and R&B that was briefly popular during the 60s, could be simplistic, but not in the hands of a master like percussionist Ray Barretto, as his “El Nuevo Barretto” amply demonstrates.
Even in a collection as generally strong as this one, Eddie Palmieri’s thrilling “Bilongo” is a standout. His stunning pianism establishes his undisputed ownership of the title, “King of the Montuno”. (The montuno is an instrumental section in which the pianist plays a repeated, syncopated vamp.) If Palmieri on the keys isn’t enough to thrill you, there’s the track’s fantastic trumpet and trombone duet.
One can quarrel with some of the selections on this compilation. Two of the collection’s weaker tracks—Ralfi Pagan’s tepid version of Oscar Brown, Jr’s “Brother Where Are You?” and “A Mi Nena” by Rafi Val y La Diferente – easily could have been replaced by stronger material. Joe Cuba’s “Do You Feel It?” has its charms, but it’s hardly representative of the best work by the conga player and bandleader from East Harlem. And why no Ruben Blades?
But Salsa Explosion: The Salsa Revolution 1969-1984 is only the first installment in a series of Strut releases from Fania’s well-stocked vaults. As such, it offers a compelling introduction to some of the greatest American music of the past century.