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Fania at Fifty

October 9, 2014 | by

The rise of a salsa empire and the decline of boogaloo.

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Photo: Courtesy of Codigo Group

Fania Records, the legendary Latin music label, has been celebrating its fiftieth anniversary with a series of events in New York and Los Angeles, its opening salvo a Central Park show last June spotlighting salsero Roberto Roena. It felt, indeed, like a party. Hundreds of dancers flooded the area in front of the stage. Those present merely to spectate were forced backward. Scattered around the perimeter were those less enthused: numerous youths lolled against concession tents and information booths, occupied with handheld devices, presumably corralled into coming by parents either filled with missionary zeal or simply unable to get a babysitter. The sharp contours of the audience underscored the relationship between the label’s haloed status and the historical circumstances that enabled its ascent.

In its sixties and seventies heyday, Fania was the most powerful force in the Latin music industry, and salsa was the most powerful force in Latin music. The depth of the connection between label and genre is pronounced. Ask die-hard fans to list their favorite figures from salsa’s golden age, and nine out of ten answers will be artists whose résumés include Fania for at least a record or two (Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente), if not for significant stretches of their careers (Celia Cruz, Willie Colón). It is commonplace to liken Fania to Motown. The parallel fits, almost. Imagine if Motown, after a few years of competing with Atlantic and Stax/Volt, had decided to buy them out. That’s what Fania did, more or less, when it acquired its main rivals, Alegre and Tico.

Fania was an unprecedented financial engine, exporting Boricua and Nuyorican culture all over the world. The label held what musician and ethnomusicographer Christopher Washburne calls a “monopoly on all aspects of the salsa industry,” controlling “recording contracts, concert promotion, and radio airplay.” Labelmates from different bands performed and recorded as the Fania All-Stars. This was synergy before synergy, when it was still called monopoly, and it created salsa audiences in Colombia, Nigeria, Russia, Japan, et cetera.

But the familiar narrative of Fania as salsa, salsa as Fania—the narrative on display this June—is only half complete, eliding as it does another genre, the buried foundation on which Fania was built: Latin boogaloo. Read More »

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Bloomsday Explained

June 13, 2014 | by

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Djuna Barnes, Joyce, 1922.

“Bloomsday,” the James Joyce scholar Robert Nicholson once quipped, “has as much to do with Joyce as Christmas has to do with Jesus.” The celebrations of Ulysses every June 16—the date on which the novel is set—attract extreme ends of the spectrum of literary enthusiasm. Academics and professionals mingle with obsessives and cranks, plus those simply along for the ride. The event can be stately and meticulous or raucous and chaotic—or, somehow, all of the above.

A telling instance came a few years ago, when the Irish Arts Center arranged a Bloomsday picnic in New York’s Bryant Park, under the rueful shadow of the Gertrude Stein statue. (Stein disliked Joyce.) Aspiring Broadway types were enlisted to circulate in period costume before bursting into popular songs from 1900-era Ireland. I spoke to one of the performers, a young Irish actor who had recently moved to New York. Had she read Ulysses? “I plan to,” she said, and in my memory, she adds, “I’m told it’s a grand book by them that knows.” The kicker was when the Irish finance minister, in town for summit meetings, got up to say that his government would take as inspiration the balanced daily budget that appears in Ulysses. The problem? Leopold Bloom’s spreadsheet in Ulysses works out only because he omits the money he’s paid to Bella Cohen’s brothel. No one pointed out the irony.

The admixture of expertise and fanboyism that marks Bloomsday, perhaps unique among literary gatherings, is remarkable—but no more so than Bloomsday’s emergence as a cultural event, one that attracts mainstream attention and participants from well outside the readership of Ulysses, by which I mean to include all those who profess to have read it. A novel written in 1922 and legally unavailable in the U.S. until 1934, a novel hailed to this day as the pinnacle of modernist obscurity and density, one that, as novelist Jacob M. Appel recently put it, “isn’t exactly hopping off the shelves in airports,” has earned an international holiday. Of all the literary celebrations that might blow up, why Joyce, why Ulysses, and why Bloomsday? Read More »

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