Everyone salsa! Fania, the dilapidated New York label that sent Latin rhythms to the world | Dance music


IIt’s 1967. Latin boogaloo – a fusion of African-American R&B and Cuban rhythms reflecting the rich melting pot of East Harlem, New York – is sweeping the neighborhood. Johnny Pacheco, a follower of traditional Latin music, considers boogaloo to be “horrible” and “not music”.

Nonetheless, he would quickly learn to love the money he made from his revolutionary label, Fania Records. After the end of boogaloo fashion, a new wave of innovative and charismatic young stars will rise to make Fania the first Latin label in the United States. Salsa – their distinctive blend of traditional tropical rhythms – will become the vibrant soundtrack of pre-disco New York.

A new comprehensive box retraces this story. “People often say that Fania was the Motown of Latin music,” says DJ and producer Dean Rudland, curator of It’s a Good, Good Feeling: The Latin Soul of Fania. “But African-American music easily passed into the American mainstream, where until recently the crossover was very elusive for tropical music in the United States. Fania proved the Nuyorican [New York Puerto Rican] community could fill Yankee Stadium, as their performers could sell arenas around the world. It was something powerful.

A Dominican-born flutist and trained in Juilliard who introduced Cuban dance pachanga to the United States, Pacheco founded Fania in 1964 with Jerry Masucci, a divorce lawyer who hated his daily job but loved Latin music. It was a ramshackle operation, with their pair peddling LPs in the trunk of a car. A turning point came when their new signing Larry Harlow, a Jewish musician and Latin music enthusiast, introduced Masucci to a man named Harvey Averne.

Ray Barretto, circa 1968. Photograph: courtesy of the Fania Archives

Harlow had played in Averne’s group, Arvito and His Latin Rhythms, in the 1950s. These were the salad days for Afro-Cuban jazz, when Manhattan nightclubs such as the Palladium Ballroom vibrated to the sound. mambo titans such as Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez and “Prez” Prado.

“Each hotel had to have a Latin group,” says Averne. Her father, a poor Georgian immigrant who worked in the garment district, fell in love with the music and culture of his Puerto Rican colleagues. Sharing his father’s passion, Averne had been playing between Manhattan ballrooms and Jewish resorts in the Catskill Mountains since the age of 14. “I grew up in Brooklyn, a tough neighborhood,” he says. “Music was my ticket out.”

However, Beatlemania ended the reign of the mambo, and hotels quickly abandoned Latin bands for beat bands. Avern started a home improvement business that was lucrative – he had a driver and an apartment on the East Side – but not fun. He jumped up when Masucci asked him to lead Fania while he shut down his law firm. “I told him I would never run a record company; I had never even walked into a recording studio. He said, ‘You’ll learn fast.’ Paid labor 300 [dollars] a month. I said, ‘But Jerry, I pay my driver 300 a month!’ “Well, I hope you haven’t forgotten how to drive. “

Avern says Fania was “a siege operation at the time. My thing was to maximize every opportunity. The rise of the boogaloo was his best opportunity yet.

Joe Bataan in 1970
Joe Bataan in 1970. Photography: Archives GAB / Redferns

“Boogaloo was a cha-cha-cha with a backbeat,” explains Joe Bataan. The son of a Filipino father and an African-American mother, he could pass for Latino and had climbed the ranks of the neighborhood thugs. “I was a neighborhood thug – I was kicked out of school and sent to a reformatory.” He fell under the spell of the Reformed school music teacher and, upon his release, spent his evenings practicing the piano at the local community center.

One night he arrived to find a group of teenagers rehearsing; sinking his switchblade into the piano, he declared himself their conductor. In less than six months, they were recording their first album for Fania.

This album, Gypsy Woman from 1967, was recorded in one day. Its title song was a Latinized rewrite of Curtis Mayfield which, alongside contemporary boogaloo hymns – I Like It Like That by Pete Rodriguez and Bang Bang by Joe Cuba – signaled a generational shift within Latin music. “Boogaloo changed times,” says Bataan. “We were voted Latin Group of the Year in 1968, above Puente, Machito, Rodriguez and the rest. Our third album, Riot, sold four to one for everyone. Boogaloo was not our parents’ music. He spoke to a larger audience. And he ruled East Harlem for three years.

Pacheco believed that the boogaloo sold the traditions of Latin music. Nevertheless, he still struggles to escape the barrio. The music industry at large has ghettoized Latin music. Bigger labels, including Atlantic, dove into Latin soul, but saw it as a fad; there were only two New York radio DJs playing Latin music, Symphony Sid and Dick “Ricardo” Sugar. “I wanted to compete with James Brown, against Smokey Robinson,” says Bataan. “But Fania had limited money and expertise.”

With the crossover proving elusive, the label’s next wave of stars has taken a direction closer to Pacheco’s heart. “After the boogaloo, the artists of Fania started to explore their roots,” says Rudland. The label signed Puerto Rican percussionist Ray Barretto, whose pedigree indicated the label was “serious,” Averne says: he had played conga for Puente, recorded for the Blue Note label and released a hit single, El Watusi. Averne produced Fania de Barretto’s debut album, Acid of 1968. Despite the title, it was not a psych-rock opus, but rather a radical update to mainstream Latin music. Averne describes it as “a milestone” in the evolution of the genre for which Fania would become best known: salsa.

Salsa encompassed traditional styles and rhythms originating in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic that experienced a resurgence in the 1970s, as a generation of Nuyoricans, inspired by the black power movement, embraced their heritage. Although indebted to the past and to the homeland, this diasporic sound had a character of its own: strongly percussive and marked by fierce and joyful brass and a lively piano.

Cheetah nightclub in New York, 1966
The Cheetah nightclub in New York, 1966. Photograph: Marty Lederhandler / AP

“Fania’s music was urban,” says Averne. “You could hear taxis, the dizzying hardness of the concrete jungle. It was the sound of New York. The city responded to salsa with a passion that has eclipsed boogaloo, embracing the dressy glamor of its stars and devotees. The frenzied dancing and crazy moments at nightclubs such as the Cheetah on Broadway and 53rd Street anticipated the decadent thrills of the disco era.

Harlow, the former member of the Averne group, was a key architect of sound. Described by Rudland as “a serious scholar of Cuban music,” Harlow sought to put salsa on a par with rock music. He was the first artist performing Latin music to tour with his own sound system and light show (at the time the standard for rock tours). After the Who released their pioneering rock opera Tommy, Harlow responded with Hommy, a “Latin opera” about a deaf, blind, and speech impaired conga player. “Larry even went to Havana to become a santero [a priest in the Santería religion], adds Averne. “It’s not easy to be included when you come from outside. He deserved it. Harlow died in August at the age of 82.

Fania’s in-house art director Izzy Sanabria (who went on to host a Latin response to Soul Train, Salsa, on a New York TV station), claimed to have coined the genre’s name. A marketing genius, he portrayed the latest signings of Fania, trombonist and conductor Willie Colón and singer Héctor Lavoe, as suave gangsters on albums including Cosa Nuestra from 1969 and Wanted By FBI from 1970. “They had. that ‘crime pays’ image and that was awesome, ”says Averne, who loaned his girlfriend’s Rolls-Royce to the pair to pose. “Willie and Héctor were special. They were street kids – they were the audience and they wrote the stories and the emotions of these children. They quickly became the biggest sellers on Fania.

“They didn’t know anything about being a gangster,” Bataan says. “It was I who really ran the streets, who went to jail – they were just pretending.” The label’s first star struggled to be a team player. “We were rival gangs in music – if I saw Willie Colón on stage I would think, ‘I wanna kick his ass tonight. But Pacheco wanted his signings to work together for the good of the label, assembling a supergroup, the Fania All-Stars, from among the cream of their roster, including Barretto, Harlow, Colón, Lavoe, Ismael Miranda, Bobby Valentin, Mongo Santamaria and many others.

Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe, 1969
Willie Colón and Héctor Lavoe, 1969. Photography: Gilles Petard / Redferns

The All-Stars were at the forefront of Pacheco and Masucci’s ambitions to break Fania and salsa on a global scale. They were the star attraction of Our Latin Thing, a 1972 concert film that vividly captured the grain and glamor of ’70s East Harlem; they toured in Europe, Africa and Japan and were headlining at Yankee Stadium. Fania became synonymous with salsa, and over the decade business was going so well that Masucci crisscrossed Manhattan in a chauffeured Rolls-Royce with the “Salsa-1” license plate.

It didn’t last. By synchronizing the well-dressed glamor of Latin nightclubs with rhythms more familiar to white audiences, the disco slowed Fania’s progress. Averne left in 1972 to form his own label, CoCo Records. After parting ways with Colón in 1973 to pursue solo fame, Lavoe struggled with fame, drug addiction, and depression. Colón teamed up with Ruben Blades for the 1978 political classic Siembra; Lavoe died of AIDS in 1993, aged 46.

Bataan left Fania after wage disputes and an attempt to unionize the label’s artists; in 1974, he co-founded the Salsoul label, marrying salsa with disco and marking the kind of crossover success that Fania had always dreamed of. The All-Stars turned to disco and signed to Columbia Records in the late ’70s. In 1988, however, they were reduced to releasing a cash cover of the Gypsy Kings Bamboleo global smash. “Fania is exhausted,” says Rudland. “It’s hard to stay relevant doing the same thing. But then after twenty years or so, you have the prospect of looking back and saying, “It was really important. “

Pacheco continued to carry the salsa flag until his death this year, at age 85. Masucci, meanwhile, moved to Argentina in the 1980s to raise his family; he died of a heart attack in 1997, aged 63. His business acumen remained sharp until the end. “Jerry started a modeling agency with Eileen Ford and when AIDS hit Argentina he invested in a condom factory,” says Averne.

“Jerry got exhausted after arriving at the nightclub,” he says. “I thought he was crazy sometimes, and he spent more money on this business than anyone. But he did. He created the iconic Latin label of all time.

It’s a Good, Good Feeling: The Latin Soul of Fania Records out October 8 on Craft Recordings


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