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Next, we'll listen to the legacy of a record label that started in the trunk of a car, went out of business a decade later, but, in between, changed the sound of Latin music around the world. The label was called Fania Records. It started in the early 1960s in New York. It signed stars like Celia Cruz, Ruben Blades, and Ray Barretto among others, who launched the golden age of salsa.

Today, some of that music is back in stores. NPR's Felix Contreras reports.

FELIX CONTRERAS reporting:

Before Fania Records, a lot of Latin dance music sounded like this:

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: After Fania, it sounded like this:

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: Three things happened that put Fania Records in the right place at the right time to provide the soundtrack for cultural change. First, the longstanding exchange of music and musicians between Cuba and the U.S. came to an abrupt halt when President Kennedy imposed an embargo on Cuba at the height of the Cold War in 1962.

Then, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, kick-starting a movement of empowerment and ethnic awareness among blacks, and by extension, other minorities in this country.

And finally, New York musician Johnny Pacheco filed for a divorce.

Mr. JOHNNY PACHECO (Co-founder, Fania Records): And that was it.

CONTRERAS: Because the divorce led him to a lawyer named Jerry Masucci. It turns out Masucci was also a Cuban music fan, and one night at a club, they found themselves lamenting the lack of new tunes after the embargo. So with the divorce out of the way, they set out to do something about the music.

Mr. PACHECO: You know, the black had Motown, the whites - the Anglo - had their own sound, and here we come with a different sound of Latin music.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: Johnny Pacheco and Jerry Masucci started their record label with $3,000 and named it after an African word that Pacheco says means family. Initially, they just set out to sell some dance albums. But Pacheco was a respected writer and arranger, who, with the help of some friends, began to update the sound of Afro-Caribbean music.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: Fania's staff engineers moved the percussion to the foreground. Pacheco and the other arrangers made the tempos faster, and they used folkloric dance rhythms for the first time in Latin popular music. The piano was often augmented by the rural Cuban guitar known as the tres, and together, they played the rhythms as melodies.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: Pacheco and the Fania artists were following in the footsteps of the great mambo big bands of the 1950s, but he says Fania's music had a contemporary New York City swagger.

Mr. PACHECO: I always said that my music would wake up the dead.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

CONTRERAS: The first Fania albums were distributed to local record stores from the back of Pacheco's old Mercedes. He says he ran that car into the ground.

Mr. PACHECO: If you sold 25,000 copies, you were doing great. But when we came on the scene, the first ones were like a hundred, a hundred-fifty, 200,000, and they started going big. We started getting gold records.

CONTRERAS: Pacheco and Jerry Masucci put their profits back into the label and started buying other Latin music labels and the stars that came with them, including Tito Puente and Charlie Palmieri. As the records started making their way across the continent into Puerto Rico, the label's influence grew.

Jose Cruz teaches political science at State University of New York in Albany.

Professor JOSE CRUZ (Professor, Political Science, The State University of New York, Albany, New York): That music was an instrument for the evolution of a Puerto Rican identity while on the island, and then they were part of a process of developing a Latino identity once in the United States.

CONTRERAS: That musical identify soon had a name: salsa.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing in foreign language)

CONTRERAS: No one's quite sure where it came from, and some musicians objected to having their work defined as sauce, but there were other more serious problems at Fania. Stories abound of Jerry Masucci taking advantage of the Fania musicians with bad contracts and holding back royalties. Some sued. Johnny Pacheco claims Masucci tricked him out of his rights to the company, but when pressed for details, Pacheco would only say:

Mr. PACHECO: Now I consider myself an idiot, because I should have seen what was coming.

CONTRERAS: An attorney for the Masucci estate says all contracts were honored, though some of the law suits were settled out of court. Fania stopped making new recordings in 1979 as fans moved to more romantic, slower styles of salsa. Jerry Masucci died in 1997, and his estate was tied up in probate for eight years.

Then, last summer, Emusica Entertainment Group of Miami bought the entire catalog, and the company's vice-president, Giora Breil, found the master tapes in a warehouse.

Mr. GIORA BREIL (Vice-President of Marketing, Emusica Entertainment Group, Miami): And, lo and behold, when we got there, they were the multi-track tapes. So it was just like winning the lotto.

CONTRERAS: But the Fania catalog is more than a financial jackpot, says Professor Jose Cruz.

Prof. CRUZ: It combines the seriousness of a cultural institution that contributes aesthetically to the development of the society, while at the same time it brings fun, vivacity, enjoyment to so many people.

CONTRERAS: A new generation may get a chance to enjoy the Fania recordings, or at least parts of them. Emusica hopes to make the master tapes available to Reggaeton artists to sample for their work.

Felix Contreras, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You can download classic Fania songs and see photos from the label's heyday at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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