RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Fifty years ago, New York City musician Johnny Pacheco and his lawyer friend Jerry Masucci started a small Latin music record label and delivered their first albums to record stores across the city from the trunk of the musician's car. From these humble beginnings, Fania Records eventually became a global brand, spreading the magic of salsa from the dance clubs of New York to the rest of the world.
(SOUNDBITE OF SALSA MUSIC)
FANIA ALL-STARS: (Singing in Spanish).
MARTIN: Felix Contreras from NPR Music's Alt.Latino is here to mark that anniversary. Hey, Felix.
FELIX CONTRERAS, BYLINE: Good morning. Good morning.
MARTIN: So what made this label so important? I mean, was it comparable to other game-changing labels like Motown and Stax and R&B or Blue Note and jazz?
CONTRERAS: Very much so. Let's get an idea of what popular Latin dance music sounded like before Fania.
(SOUNDBITE OF "DANCE MANIA" ALBUM)
TITO PUENTE: (Singing in Spanish).
MARTIN: Sounds a little Lawrence Welk-ish in a Latin kind of way.
CONTRERAS: Yes. That particular track is the king of Latin music, Tito Puente. It's from his "Dance Mania" album - 1958. The horn arrangements I think are what are triggering that Lawrence Welk sound because those arrangements were influenced by big band jazz and the music of that time.
MARTIN: So what did Fania do to change that?
CONTRERAS: OK. Let's go back to another part of the first track we heard. It's a song called "Aguanile" by trombonist and composer Willie Colon from the 1972 album "El Juicio."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL JUICIO")
HECTOR LAVOE: (Singing in Spanish).
CONTRERAS: That's a guaguanco (imitating instrument).
CONTRERAS: That's a traditional Afro-Cuban folk rhythm not used much in popular dance music before Fania. The label's writers and arrangers - they used more traditional beats like guaguanco, bomba from Puerto Rico, merengue from Dominican Republic. And he mixed all that in with the mambo and cha-cha-cha and boleros - the sounds of their parent's generation.
MARTIN: What about vocalists, Felix?
CONTRERAS: Oh, man. OK Rachel, check this out.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "CELIA AND JOHNNY")
CELIA CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish).
CONTRERAS: That's Celia Cruz from the 1974 album "Celia and Johnny" with Johnny Pacheco. Remember him?
CONTRERAS: OK, she was one of the many stellar vocalists from Cuba, from Puerto Rico, from the Dominican Republic, Panama, New York City. We heard Hector Lavoe at the top. The actor Ruben Blades was also on Fania. So many singers that they formed an all-star group that recorded and toured under the name the Fania All-Stars.
MARTIN: Hmm, All-Stars. Do you have a favorite vocalist?
CONTRERAS: Rachel, de corazon es Celia Cruz.
MARTIN: Of course. I mean, come on.
(SOUNDBITE OF CELIA CRUZ SONG)
CRUZ: (Singing in Spanish).
MARTIN: Finally, there was a social impact of Fania Records, right?
CONTRERAS: Well, the early 1970s was a political coming-of-age of Latinos across the country. Now Fania was the soundtrack for the empowerment for many of these communities because it was brash, it was vibrant, it was new. It embraced the Afro identity of Latin America. And it made me - a young Chicano teenager in California just discovering music - I wanted to be part of this exciting, new sound and movement.
MARTIN: Felix Contreras is the host of NPR Music's Alt.Latino. It's a show about Latino arts and culture. You can find that at npr.org/music. Felix, thanks so much for the history lesson and all the great music.
CONTRERAS: Of course. Any time.
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