Music geeks like to call New York’s Fania Records the Motown of salsa music. That’s not completely accurate, because Fania wasn’t exactly Hitsville, but you can boil the comparison down to three factors:
1. Like Motown, Fania created a sound all its own.
The genre of salsa music didn’t exist before Fania invented it in mid-’60s NYC. Fania’s bands were happily mixing up exotically named Afro-Cuban styles — son, charanga, guaracha, bomba — that sounded intimidating to gringo audiences without access to Wikipedia. Fania co-founders Johnny Pacheco and Jerry Masucci created “salsa” as a catch-all marketing term.
On Strut’s wonderful new two-disc compilation Fania Records 1964-1980: The Original Sound of Latin New York, you can hear the music throb with energy as it picks up different genres, like a giant snowball tearing down the Manhattan streets. It starts with Pacheco’s 1964 “Dakar, Punto Final”, a simple three-chord pachanga that alternates impressive trumpet solos with a repeated gang vocal line. From there, the songs grow louder and more aggressive, gobbling up jazz and soul, Chopin and “Bat-maaaaan!”, until they sound like the hungry streets of New York. Joe Bataan’s “Subway Joe” drives the point home by creating a subway train out of relentless handclaps and blaring trombones. (What do cities sound like? Horns and clatter, mostly.)
2. Like Motown soul, Fania’s music is both great salsa, and great salsa for people who don’t like salsa.
A couple of these 29 songs — stuff by Ismael Miranda and Orchestra Harlow — are what you might call “generic”. They sound fine, but non-afficionadi would have trouble picking them out of a salsa lineup. At their best, though, Fania artists rarely settled for craftsmanship. On plenty of songs they seemed to be daring each other to record the most outrageous horn cascade, or the goofiest group vocal, or the most outlandish instrumental texture they could imagine. (Cheo Feliciano’s “Anacaona” has vibes but NO HORNS.)
The instrumental solos are similarly daring. Pianists like Markolino Dimond, Larry Harlow, and Richie Ray demand to be heard, cutting through their bands with noisy tone clusters and, in Ray’s case, Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude”. Various timbaleros bang away like John Bonham doing “Moby Dick”, only they’re not boring. Hovering over all this instrumental activity is the great trombonist and bandleader Willie Colón. He leads five songs here and arranges others, and his imaginative arrangements and meaty horn sound helped establish the label’s muscular, try-anything atmosphere.
For several of these songs, “salsa” seems an inadequate descriptor. (But since these guys invented the stuff, whaddo I know?) “Subway Joe”, Ray Barretto’s “Mercy Mercy Baby”, and Bobby Valentin’s “Coco Seco” are groovy soul tracks. With its deep bottom end, electric keyboard, and call-and-response vocals, Mongo Santamaría’s “O Mi Shango” sounds like a great Manu Dibango outtake. And then there’s singer Héctor Lavoe’s “El Cantante”, a deranged epic on the order of the movie Fitzcarraldo, with bizarre pasted-on strings and wild cymbal crashes. A Celebration of The Singer’s Art, it tries to devour the whole world and doesn’t really succeed, but once you’ve heard it you won’t forget it.
3. Like Motown, Fania was a uniquely American enterprise.
Besides establishing an indigenous American musical form, Fania embodied its country’s diversity and capitalist drive. Salsa was music played by Caribbean immigrants, sure, but it was also music played by NYC-born Latinos (Barretto, Colón) and non-Latinos (Bataan, Harlow). Along with its omnivorous music, Fania was also an omnivorous company, swallowing up smaller labels and their Latin-soul assets. Fania’s two biggest pop hits — Barretto’s “El Watusi” and Joe Cuba’s “Bang! Bang!” — started their lives on the smaller Tico label. (Neither is included here.) All together, Fania released about 1,300 albums, many of which are currently out of print.
After an initial creativity burst of 12 years or so, Fania’s ambition began to catch up with it. The final five songs on Fania Records show us musicians mired in nostalgia while attempting big statements. In other words, Fania succumbed to that peculiar American insecurity that’s afflicted everyone from Wynton Marsalis to Robin Williams. Why settle for crass and delightful when you can be Big and Important?
“El Cantante” is one such folly — generally, if a Fania song is a Celebration of the Singer’s Art, it’s kind of boring. And once singer Rubén Blades shows up, on 1977’s “Pablo Pueblo”, the songs take on a bad case of Significance. Back on Ray Barretto’s 1973 “Indestructible”, vocalist and horn lines were musical equals, rudely battling for audio space and drowning each other out. But on “Pablo Pueblo” and “Padro Navaja” (a “Mack the Knife” rewrite), Perico Ortiz’s arrangements tiptoe carefully around Blades’s socially conscious lyrics. On this compilation’s final two songs, singing superstar Celia Cruz’s bands seem cowed by her talent and reputation, to the detriment of the musical energy.
Even so, the Significant songs are listenable and well worth hearing. Most of the other songs are well nigh essential. Summing up 1,300 albums in 29 songs will always be a fool’s errand, and there are glaring omissions: Cuba, Tito Puente, and the fabulous crackpot singer La Lupe are all excluded. Fania Records also shares three songs with Strut’s last Fania compilation, Salsa Explosion! But if you need a salsa comp that showcases the genre’s variety and it’s heaviest hitters, you won’t do much better than this one.