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Spicing up that beat

Releases from Fania Records, the label that set the world pulsing to salsa, are being reissued with refurbishments.

January 15, 2006|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

ONCE, a record label of the humblest beginnings turned into an international powerhouse by gambling on unknown talent in a minority community overlooked or underestimated by the industry at large. Its success was fueled by tirelessly promoting artists intent on asserting their cultural identity and seeking recognition within the U.S. mainstream.

In the '60s, that label was Motown Records.

In the '70s, it was Fania Records, the barrio label once peddled from the back of a truck in the streets of New York that single-handedly set the whole world dancing to a salsa beat.

Starting next month, Fania's extensive and vital music vaults will be rejuvenated with the first in a series of reissues, as well box sets available for the first time. The label's catalog of salsa classics are being rereleased on CD with refurbished sound and fresh liner notes after its recent purchase by Miami-based Emusica Entertainment Group.

Just as Motown shaped soul and R&B, Fania created its own sound in Latin dance music. It was based on traditional Afro-Caribbean styles with an array of rhythms -- son, guaguanco, bomba, plena, rumba, merengue, mambo. But Fania's savvy promoters were the first to market the modernized versions under a single catch-all expression that became a readily recognizable brand in any language: salsa.

The music was so influential that it inspired Carlos Santana to create Latin rock, turning Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va" into a crossover smash. At its peak, salsa became so popular that the Fania All Stars, the label's supergroup, went from playing small Latin clubs to selling out Yankee Stadium. Their concerts, many recorded for live albums, were electrifying events that drew wild fan followings from the Congo to Tokyo.

"It's almost like every release they had, small or large, had artistic value," says veteran music executive Bill Marin, Fania's West Coast promoter in the mid-'70s. "The music made a difference. It gave you the pulse of something fresh and new."

Fania's catalog includes many historic recordings and several musical milestones. Among the notables:

* The very first albums made by a then-beardless Eddie Palmieri with his groundbreaking 1960s band, La Perfecta.

* The early works of singer-songwriter Ruben Blades, including 1977's "Siembra," his second album with bandleader Willie Colon, considered the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" of salsa music for its fresh sound and complex songs.

* The first collaboration between Dominican bandleader and Fania co-founder Johnny Pacheco with singer Celia Cruz, 1974's "Celia & Johnny," one of the bestselling salsa albums of all time.

* The career work of the late Hector Lavoe, a brash but beloved street singer specializing in quick-witted improvisations and exquisitely soulful boleros. This revered folk figure's tragic life is the subject of a new movie to star Marc Anthony, now in production.

* The early live recordings of the Fania All Stars, especially 1971's "Live at the Cheetah" (Volumes 1 and 2), which was featured in the documentary "Our Latin Thing," helping spark the '70s salsa explosion.

*

It began with ambition

THE label was launched in 1964 by Pacheco and his Brooklyn-born attorney, Jerry Masucci, a former New York cop who had handled the bandleader's divorce. The pair set about signing unknown bands led by artists who would later become salsa superstars, including trombonist Willie Colon, pianist Larry Harlow, bongocero Roberto Roena, conguero Ray Barretto and bassist Bobby Valentin. Their company became so powerful it soon gobbled up the catalogs of older Latin labels, such as Tico and Alegre, bringing into the fold almost every significant salsa artist from that era, outside of Cuba.

The long-awaited purchase of Fania comes at a time when sales of new salsa CDs are down dramatically. Still, it's a testament to Fania's strength that it was able to survive exclusively on catalog sales long after its heyday faded in the early '80s and its stable of artists scattered to other record companies. Until the recent sale of its assets, the label was shrouded in a web of lawsuits from aggrieved artists and a confusing trail of ownership after Masucci's mysterious move to Argentina, where he died in 1997.

The corporate and probate entanglements stalled previous acquisition efforts even by the most eager and resourceful of suitors, such as Zach Horowitz, president of Universal Music Group.

"I'm just happy as a fan that this stuff is going to come out again," says Horowitz, who settled for a distribution deal with Fania's new owners. "It's the first time in 30 years, maybe ever, that somebody has done the historic treatment this catalog deserves."

Music executive Giora Breil had been trying for five years to acquire Fania. But only after sealing the deal last summer did he realize he may have unearthed previously unreleased gems in the bargain.

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