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Michael Rucker got to play the Santa of Salsa this holiday season. As director of marketing for Miami-based Latin music label Emusica, Rucker spent much of his time delivering promo copies of the company's remastered classics from Fania Records, the storied label that launched the careers of (among others) Rubén Blades, Willie Colón, and Celia Cruz.
Last year Emusica purchased the rights to Fania's original 1300-album catalogue, including the work of the Fania All Stars, the label's revered supergroup. Emusica has re-released 120 discs so far, with the help of its distributor Universal Music, and is hoping to reissue 300 more this year.
"The minute I tell people we're remastering Fania All Stars CDs, they get these huge grins on their faces," Rucker notes.
Emusica's remastering project allows older fans to track down records that had previously gone out of print, and listen to them with enhanced sound quality. Meanwhile newer generations of music lovers can get a first-class salsa education by reading the liner notes Emusica has added to Fania's original album covers, or by purchasing one of a handful of new Fania compilations.
Recent releases include A Man and His Music, a line of single-artist box sets featuring Johnny Pacheco and Ray Barretto; Latin Heritage, featuring Tommy Olivencia; the Fania Latin Legends ambiance music collection for romance, cocktails and dinner parties; and the three-part El Barrio series, which chronicles the birth of Latin soul in the Sixties and Seventies.
Often called the Motown of the Latin music industry, Fania Records was founded in 1964 in New York City's Spanish Harlem by Dominican-born flautist Pacheco and a New York lawyer named Jerry Masucci. From the beginning, Fania was a down-home operation. "Their first albums they literally sold out of a truck," Rucker says. "They would drive around to the record stores and ask how many copies they wanted."
In 1968, Masucci and Pacheco devised a new marketing concept by creating the Fania All Stars, a house band that drew on a rotating cast of their labels' best artists.
"Every time they went out, it was different. That was the beauty of what they did in creating the All Stars," says Rucker. Fania recorded virtually all of the All Stars' live performances, often adding to these concert discs a few tracks from new artists they hoped to promote.
The All Stars concept also allowed Fania to showcase new trends in Latin music. In fact it was Fania that popularized the term salsa to describe the fusion of Caribbean rhythms, big-band sounds, and American R&B that grew out of New York City's expanding Latino community. But the label dependably eschewed the bland, poppy salsa put out by other companies.
"Breaking the rules made the music livelier," explains former Fania producer Bobby Marín, who now works for Emusica.
He points to artists like Pacheco, a pioneer of the bouncy pachanga dance craze of the early Sixties, who encouraged Fania artists to jazz up the clave, a popular Afro-Cuban rhythmic pattern, with experimental horn sections. Pacheco and his colleagues also spiced up traditional forms such as the Cuban guajira with sharp violin notes and handclapping to create what later become known as the Latin boogaloo.
But Fania's roster of musicians didn't just revolutionize the music. They also wrote lyrics that spoke directly to the struggles of an ethnic minority still living on the margins of American culture.
This spirit of pride is evident on late conguero Ray Barretto's Que Viva la Música, the first of Fania's A Man and His Music compilation series. The song "Indestructible" begins, like most of Barretto's tracks, with an explosion of danceable drumbeats and trumpet scales, and then trumpets a message of resilience.
"When in life you suffer an injury because you lose beloved blood, in that moment, grab your destiny in your hand and go forward with the help of new blood," he declares. Back-up singers chime in "new, invincible blood."
Afro-Cuban singer La Lupe, known as "The Queen of Latin Soul," uses her powerful voice not to celebrate the new blood, but to lament the broken heart. On her album Reina de la Canción Latina, one of Emusica's remastered originals, she cries, "Take this dagger/Open my veins/I want to bleed to death." She slurs the ends of each phrase like a flamenco singer: "I don't want life if it's to see you as a stranger/because without your affection it's not worth it."
Emusica's trove of re-releases also highlights Fania's contribution to Latino political self-discovery. Take, for example, the album Siembra, a 1978 collaboration between the Panamanian-born Blades and Nuyorican Colón. Musically the LP weds salsa with a funky disco groove. But it is Blades's charged lyrics that made the disc one of the most widely bootlegged through Latin America.
Blades's infamous "Plástico" pokes fun at Latin elites who worship U.S. dollars and European identity. "The plastic woman," Blades sings, "tells her five-year-old son not to play with children of strange colors." He exhorts the citizens of Latin American nations not to sell their souls for gold. As the tune fades out, Blades can be heard cheering, "Nicaragua without Somoza!" a reference to that country's leftist Sandinista revolution, which toppled the right-wing Somoza dictatorship.
The album also includes "Pedro Navaja," a retelling of the Bobby Darin standard "Mack the Knife." In this case, Blades relays the story of a legendary pimp who, in the midst of trying to stab a discontented prostitute, dies from the gunshot wounds she inflicts upon him. "New York has five million stories," Blades chants.
Rather than playing as nostalgia, songs like these have become a source of inspiration for younger Latin musicians. "I discovered Fania in my early teens when I moved to Miami and was going through my dad's record collection," says Javier Garcia, Universal Records' latest Latin alternative pop phenomenon.
Garcia already knew all about Celia Cruz, whose Fania recordings mark her ascendance from back-up vocalist to salsa superstar. But he became intrigued by the label's more offbeat offerings as well. He can still remember listening to the 1981 Blades/Colón tune "Tiburón," which warns Latin Americans to resist the imperial shark from up north. "I thought it was supercool, almost cartoonish, but with a lot of attitude," Garcia says.
As a crossover artist in conservative Miami, Garcia doesn't make such overt political statements on his tracks. But he and other Latin alternative artists on the scene still use an amalgam of musical styles and rhythms to chronicle the lives of second- and third-generation Latinos, as well as newly arrived immigrants.
"One of the prevailing attributes to Latin music in general is the fact that it's so uplifting, and of course the African rhythms mixed with the Latin-Caribbean swing," Garcia notes. "Fania had all that and on top of it, it had urban American appeal due to the eclectic instruments and of course [being based] in New York." Fania's groundbreaking style, he says, is evident in the "dirty salsa" and "vintage Latin grooves" found in today's Latin alternative music.
Rucker agrees. He says many fans who listen to the Fania recordings tell him they're shocked to hear old-school salsa sounding so, well, contemporary. "Fania always pushed the envelope," he says. "Even today their music is revolutionary to the industry."