Various ‘Fania Records 1964-1980: The Original Sound of Latin New York’ 2LP/2CD/DIG (Strut) 5/5

Fania was to Latin music what Blue Note was to jazz and Studio One was to reggae music; the premier label by which all other recordings in the same genre were compared with. It had the most impressive of artist rosters, a distinctive new sound from the mid-1960s onwards (helped by the engineering expertise of Jon Fausty), iconic art covers from Izzy Sanabria and a tireless promoter in co-founder (alongside musician and producer Johnny Pacheco) and owner Jerry Masucci. Over the years numerous record companies have exploited the extensive back catalogue with anthologies of individual artists and classic album re-issues. This latest various artist compilation does a pretty good job of presenting a cross-section of the label’s musical heritage and covers all the essential songs that it is famed for with the occasional discovery.

In the early days of the 1960s Latin music was dominated by Cuban sounds such as the flute and string driven charanga. Fania at first replicated the formula (Pacheco’s first Fania albums were instrumental charanga and very successful commercially at that), but started to forge its own identity as the new salsa and boogaloo sounds emerged. Ray Barretto scored chart success with his take on Latin soul ‘Mercy mercy baby’ while Bobby Valentin had one of the more convincing slices of the sub-genre with ‘Use it before you lose it’. The boogaloo, however, was a short-lived phenomenon and it was the harder hitting salsa groove that really defined Fania with a pared down number of musicians replacing the older and by the mid-1960s somewhat tired traditional big band format that worked beat under the mambo beat of the 1950s. Indeed the very term salsa was almost synonymous with Fania and that in itself is testimony to the label’s success. A number of new artists such as Willie Colon, Cheo Feliciano and Hector Lavoe, predominantly of Puerto Rican origin (though not exclusively Johnny Pacheco is a native of the Domincan Republic, while Rubén Blades is Panamanian), emerged. Collectively the musicians and singers were known as the Fania All Stars, recording a legendary live performance at the Cheetah for Fania and for which audio and visual highlights can be enjoyed on the documentary ‘Our Latin thing’ and the seminal ‘Quitate tu’ is included here. Anthemic titles captivated Latino populations in the States and Latin America more generally at a time of political activism and included herein are Hector Lavoe’s ‘Mi gente’ (’My people’) and the even more personal ‘El cantante’ (’The singer’). Puerto Ricans and other Hispanic migrants in the States could personally identify with the characters portrayed in these songs and this gave them added potency even when the instrumentation was immediately intoxicating and appealing to non-Spanish speaking audiences. By the mid-1970s word had spread that Fania was a label to be reckoned with and salsa started to attract an audience way beyond its natural constituency. The pairing of Willie Colon and Ruben Blades did much to promote salsa and a new form that was not afraid to tackle social issues. Both ‘Pablo Pueblo’ and ‘Pedro Navaja’ were initially chastised for being too long in length and too morbid in social content, but both became massive hits and showed that Latin music need not simply sing of happiness and love. A harder musical edge was one characteristic of salsa recorded in New York and aimed at the downtrodden barrios of Spanish Harlem. Percussionist Roberto Roena typified that sound and ‘Que se sepa’ is definitive salsa as is ‘Indestructible’ by Ray Barretto who in the late 1960s and throughout the early to mid-1970s changed attack and became a disciple of the harder hitting salsa beat. Instrumental examples of salsa dura have wisely been highlighted on the compilation such as the wonderful ‘The hustler’ by Willie Colon and ‘Mambo de Bataan’ by Joe Bataan. Other pairings enjoyed commercial success and in the case of Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz, became household names in Columbia. Their offering ‘Sonido bestial’ is a much loved song. Older Cuban musicians, who had become exiled in the States after enjoying successful careers in the 1950s, Celia Cruz and Mongo Santamaria, joined the Fania team (albeit on the sister Vaya label – Fania also bought up the rights to some of the older labels like Tico), regularly performed with the Fania All Stars on their tours and albums, as well as pursuing highly successful individual careers in the 1970s. Mongo Santamaria is represented by a traditional orisha tune ‘O mi shango’ (though on Vaya recordings he pioneered Latin-funk sounds).

Celia Cruz paired up with Willie Colon as producer on several albums and enjoyed her greatest success thus far with ‘Quimbara’’ being just one of a bevy of hit songs. If Fania ran out of steam by the late 1970s with the advent of disco (which itself borrowed heavily on Latin beats – one label Salsoul even has the term salsa as part of its name and promoted disco and Latin artists in equal measure), it would by the mid-1980s start to be seen as an ideal re-issue label and gain even greater notoriety internationally. With the full 2CD comes a thirty-page booklet that illuminates the history of the label. Ideal early summer listening and a fine summation of Latin music more generally over two decades.

Tim Stenhouse