Fania Records Celebrates 50th Anniversary

A group of Latin musicians gave an historic concert at Yankee Stadium in the summer of 1973. About 40,000 fans danced to the beat of a genre that had a different flavor to the Sones, Guarachas and other Cuban rhythms of the era. It was called “salsa.”

The genre with percussion, keyboards, vocals and wind instruments was popular, especially in birthplace New York, thanks to its distinctive rock and jazz influence and its innovative arrangements that allowed improvisation and changes of instrument positions onstage. But it had never before brought together so many people.

Photo: Gregory Bull/AP, file
Posing for a portrait in Mexico City.

It was made possible by Fania Records, which grouped its stars under one orchestra and name: Fania All-Stars.

The concert featured Cheo Feliciano, Larry Harlow, Mongo Santamaria, Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, Ray Barretto, Roberto Roena, Richie Ray, Bobby Valentin, Bobby Cruz and Ismael Miranda.

On Aug. 24, some of Fania’s stars will reunite in New York’s Central Park to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the record label that has been compared to Motown Records because of its acceptance in the U.S. and Latin America.

“Fania changed the outlook of the American popular music,” said Evelyn Figueroa, project director at the Smithsonian Latino Center and a salsa expert. “It brought a diversity of rhythms, made a diversity of compositions where they blended everything, and it was all fascinating, and that creation and diversity made a tremendous change.”

The label, founded in New York in 1964 by lawyer Jerry Masucci and band leader Johnny Pacheco, promoted new Hispanic talent and focused on the quality of the music, Figueroa said.

“Fania made musical art, and that is different from doing music to sell. That’s why it has endured, for the quality of the sound, the compositions, the rhythm,” she said. “Its goal was to create, not to sell.”

Musicians such as Celia Cruz, Tito Puente and Ruben Blades were part of the label, as well as luminaries like Eddie and Charlie Palmieri, Adalberto Santiago, Tite Curet Alonso, Papo Lucca, Yomo Toro, Ismael “Maelo” Rivera, Joe Cuba, Machito, Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez, Tito Rodriguez and Tommy Olivencia.

The Associated Press recently spoke with Pacheco from his home in New Jersey.

“We gave it a sound that was only heard in New York,” Pacheco, 79, said. “If you look at different rhythms, salsa is the simplest music there is, what happens is that we give it flavor and a distinct feeling.”

Salsa was eventually overshadowed by other genres, tendencies and tastes, but Fania’s music had faithful followers – and attracted new ones. It influenced contemporary musicians like the Gran Combo of Puerto Rico and new generations that shine in other genres, like Calle 13.

Calle 13 vocalist Rene Perez said his rapping is inspired by the fluidity of “Maelo” Rivera’s “soneo” and his awareness as a composer of Blades, with whom he recorded the song “La Perla.”

“There has not been another one like him,” he said of Rivera.

Fania’s music is so original, said the other half of Calle 13, Eduardo Cabra, that if one doesn’t know what salsa is, one only has to listen to Barretto’s album Indestructible, especially the song “El hijo de Obatala.”

“I just need to play them that song and that album,” Cabra said. “This song defines what salsa is, it has rhythm; Ray Barretto’s solo, adding his voice and Tito Tito Allen’s ‘soneos.’”

The new owner of the label, Codigo Group, an entertainment company founded by New York-based group Signo Equity, wants to attract young people.

It is offering new digital compilations on iTunes and on its website, and it has created the first app of Latin music for Spotify. Most of the label’s catalog is also on sale digitally.

The 50th anniversary celebration will also include the release of digital remixes with DJs like the duo The Whiskey Barons of Boston and more than 40 events including concerts, plays, dance shows and film projections.

Michael Rucker, chief marketing officer at Fania Records/Codigo Group, said the final concert for the 50th anniversary, in association with Central Park’s Summerstage, will include an orchestra of 23 musicians.

“It will be beautiful,” Pacheco said. “Every time we come together is like a carnival.”