Fania Records reunites stars of samba for 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.

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.