Latin Music fans Celebrate 50 years of Salsa
By Richie Martinez
Right from the start, Fania Records and its subsidiaries exceeded everybody’s expectations. The label was created in 1964. Fania created a unique sound: the apex of tropical music, combined with the swing of big band jazz and the gritty vibe of American R&B. The label provided an artistic haven for a young generation of musicians who were inspired to experiment with new musical formats. It also gave birth to a musical group, the legendary Fania All Stars that changed the history of Latin Music. The widely successful Fania All Stars brought together several of the label’s most popular artists like Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, Celia Cruz, Ray Barretto, Ismael Miranda, Ruben Blades, Cheo Feliciano, and Roberto Roena among many others. The albums recorded from the early ’70s to the mid-’80s went beyond the parameters of so-called “salsa” – taking Latin music to unsuspected levels of sophistication. Their music was heard from the streets of El Barrio in New York, to the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe and Africa. It penetrated the market so successfully and became so popular at the international level that its executives decided to broaden its talent in order to reach an even wider audience.
The Fania All Stars’ first concert, “Live at the Red Garter,” was a promotional experiment designed solely to test the waters. The all-star cast included Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, Ricardo Ray, and Bobby Cruz, and resulted in a live double album. The experiment couldn’t have been more successful. In 1971, the band revolutionized salsa as a genre with “Fania All Stars at the Cheetah,” a concert that was filmed and recorded live. In 1973, following a successful tour, the band made its first appearance at Yankee Stadium in New York. The stars performed before countless fans that had caught the fever and were swooning in the presence of consecrated performers of the genre. This concert, too was filmed and recorded live, and set the standard in the music industry.
“Fania All-Stars was the baddest band that has ever existed,” says singer Ismael Miranda, who joined Fania in 1968 at age 18. “What made it so magical was that we created a family atmosphere, we had the best musicians and singers who respected one another, and we showed that respect to our audience. Before we knew it, a two-hour show became a three-hour show and the people loved it,” Miranda adds.
“Our sound was special because it was like a paella,” says conga player Eddie Montalvo, who joined the label in the early 1980s. “We had a lot of ingredients go in to make great music and lay the foundation of what we call salsa. We were like the Latino Motown.”
To commemorate Fania’s 50th anniversary; New York City will play host to a summer long series of city-wide outdoor concerts honoring the label’s legacy starting June 14 in Central Park and will run through August 24. Culminating with a Central Park blowout reuniting many of the Fania legends, including Johnny Pacheco, Ismael Miranda, Bobby Valentin, Larry Harlow, Isidro Infante and Eddie Montalvo. The celebration, part of the annual SummerStage festival, also includes dance and theater performances, a screening of the 1972 Fania All-Stars concert documentary “Our Latin Thing,” and other events paying homage to the groundbreaking label co-founded in New York by bandleader Johnny Pacheco in 1964.
“Being honored for the whole season of SummerStage is the best thing that has happened to us in New York, because this is where (Fania) was born,” Miranda says.
“We’re planning a great show and we’re bringing in singers that have been with Fania at various times throughout the years. It’s going to be nice.”
There will be a long shadow cast over the happy occasion, though. Many of the performers who helped make Fania what it is are no longer around, a fact punctuated by the recent death of singer Cheo Feliciano.
“It’s a pity because most of the (original) singers aren’t here anymore,” Miranda says. “(I feel sad) that I’ll get on stage and I won’t see Hector or Celia and I won’t see Cheo, all those guys were the greatest”.
“I’ve worked with a lot of different bands and been in many different shows,” he adds. “Still, I haven’t felt that magical thing that happens with Fania. Something comes on stage with us.”
For further info and complete list of concerts and event dates visit www.fania.com