Fania at Fifty


On Music

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


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.

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VA-Fania-Records-1964-1980-2011“Latin music” as a category is a cheat. We use the term to refer to a wide and overlapping set of traditions, from the son jarocho folk songs of Mexico’s Caribbean coast to the electro-cumbia hip in Buenos Aires today. Grouping this music together reveals how stylistically broad Latin music really is. The traditions share, for example, musical elements catalyzed in the Caribbean along the slave routes, where African influence mingled with music indigenous to the islands and coasts and traces of European styles. But this intersection propels genres as apparently varied as reggae, New Orleans brass, and son cubano. In truth, practically all popular forms of popular music over the last century exhibit Caribbean influence: Jelly Roll Morton was talking about the “Spanish tinge” nearly a century ago.

Latin music, then, is better understood chronologically. In the forties and fifties, mambo and Latin big-band jazz became the first commercially viable Latin styles in the United States. At their peak, these genres were dominated by Cuba—bandleaders such as Pérez Prado and Machito were at the forefront of the fad, and U.S. musicians looked to Cuba for trends and innovations. America saw a steady influx of Cuban musicians to fill band ranks.

Relations cooled after Cuba’s 1959 revolution and the U.S. trade embargo. At the same time, Puerto Rican immigration to the U.S. was exploding. Between 1940 and 1960, the Puerto Rican population in New York increased, without exaggeration, one-thousand percent. Puerto Ricans became the most visible Latino community in America. The year 1961 saw the release of Jesús Colón’s A Puerto Rican in New York; in the dance halls, bandleaders of Puerto Rican descent—such as Puente, Joe Cuba, and Ray Barretto—began their rise.

This was the scene into which lawyer and ex-cop Jerry Masucci and the multi-instrumentalist Johnny Pacheco launched Fania in 1964. The musical styles driving early Fania records were the Cuban-derived charanga and Pacheco’s twist on it, pachanga. Soon, Fania found its first signature sound: Latin boogaloo–sometimes called shing-a-ling, sometimes Latin Soul, sometimes written bugalú. The term boogaloo itself either connotes dance-oriented, blues-derived music—roughly equivalent to boogie—or an African American dance popular in the sixties: that dance probably gives Latin boogaloo its name.  

Genres are slippery. The best-known definition of Latin boogaloo was coined by the bandleader Pucho Brown: “cha-cha with a backbeat.” (Cha-chas are set in traditional Afro-Cuban two-three clave, and a backbeat borrowed from rock and roll or soul would emphasize the second and fourth beat of the measures.) But this definition could fit many forms of popular music. I’d venture to say a boogaloo recording usually has some combination of the following: Latin percussion playing Afro-Caribbean rhythms; chords and song structures borrowed from soul/R & B/doo-wop (themselves derived from gospel and blues); English lyrics, often a bit goofy; and a party atmosphere created by the shouts of the band or an in-studio audience. Much of boogaloo has an air of amateurism to it, a bubblegum simplicity that encourages even neophytes to hit the dance floor.

To Izzy Sanabria, an early Fania collaborator, boogaloo encapsulates what made the label innovative: it targeted a new generation of record buyers, “Puerto Rican baby boomers, the sons and daughters of the huge Puerto Rican migration.” Sanabria, sometimes called “Mr. Salsa,” was a triple threat: an accomplished visual artist, stage presence, and writer. He designed many of Fania’s iconic album covers, he emceed Fania’s showcase events, and he published Latin NY Magazine in the seventies.

Speaking to me by phone, Sanabria pointed out that his peers’ parents migrated to the U.S. as laborers, with very little education, and that the young Puerto Ricans of the sixties showed only a tepid interest in the previous generation’s music. Instead, they identified with the African American music that was at the forefront of U.S. consciousness, and often the top of the charts. Thus, Latin boogaloo, musically and culturally hybrid, became “the biggest thing in New York.”

joe-bataan-riot-fania-mono-frontIn 1966, Fania signed singer and bandleader Joe Bataan at Harlem’s Boricua Theater. Bataan went on to record numerous hits for the label, most of which were categorized as part of the emerging boogaloo trend, though Bataan, in a phone conversation, said he prefers to call his records Latin soul. Of African American and Filipino descent, Bataan is native of Spanish Harlem, El Barrio, the heart of the U.S. Puerto Rican community; he learned music by sneaking into Saint Cecilia’s Church on East 106th Street and practicing piano by night. He recognizes that his joining the label signifies Fania’s larger strategy, as his music “broadened their audience,” getting them airplay on radio stations that specialized in Latin music as well as the stations cast as more generically American.

Fania’s motivations here may have been commercial, but they mirror what the historian Juan Flores calls “the social function of boogaloo”: as linking “neighbors and coworkers, African Americans and Puerto Ricans,” and as a “meeting place between Puerto Ricans and Blacks, and, by extension, between Latin music and the culture of the United States.” Flores alludes to Harlem geography—the adjacency of El Barrio to the African American neighborhoods of Central Harlem—as well as to the overlapping social issues confronting both ethnic groups that animated 1960s Boricua culture. Piri Thomas’s 1967 memoir, Down These Mean Streets, captures the moment lucidly. Set in El Barrio, its dark-skinned protagonist fixates on his identity not just as a Boricua in New York but specifically in relation to his African American peers.

While Thomas represents a negotiation of Nuyorican and African American cultures, boogaloo performs it, and Bataan may be its embodiment. Bataan had a remarkable run at Fania, earning the informal epithet, “King of Latin Soul.” By 1969, though, he felt the label‘s focus shifting. Soon, ownership wasn’t interested in boogaloo at all; in its view, nobody was. It was time to make way for a new sound, the style eventually known as salsa.

Sanabria likes to say that boogaloo wasn’t killed, it was murdered: pushed aside by promoters, radio stations, and yes, Fania. (He promises to address this in a forthcoming memoir.) The accusation is echoed in interviews reported by Flores. But Fania’s longtime executive vice president Harvey Averne—who, as producer and musician, himself made popular boogaloo records—told me that the very notion that a record label would intentionally kill off a chance at profits is absurd. Alex Masucci, Jerry’s brother and another Fania executive, supports Averne’s claim.

JPFANIA2-master315There’s a case to be made that the shift was inevitable. Boogaloo faded along with the historical forces that had driven it. Salsa arrived and thrived at a time when Miguel Algarín and Miguel Piñero, poets of the Nuyorican school, started the Nuyorican Poets’ Café, and when the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican militant nationalist group, conducted direct actions in New York. To oversimplify: if boogaloo is cross-cultural, integrationist music, a product of the utopian sixties, then salsa is identity politics music, music to reaffirm the specificity of cultural heritage. The late ethnomusicologist Lisa Waxer called the genre “a potent emblem of Puerto Rican identity.” Salsa, unlike boogaloo, is meant to sound not like a meeting point between Afro-Caribbean music and other styles, but like a compressed expression of Latino experience. Classic salsa records, such as those by Colón, incorporate folk forms such as the Puerto Rican bomba and Panamanian murga. The lyrics, in Spanish, are imbued with a political imperative and ethnic specificity rarely found in boogaloo. Consider an iconic production, the Fania All-Stars concert LP and film Our Latin Thing (Nuestra Cosa). The possessive adjectives in the title—and the implied superfluousness of including “Latin” in the Spanish title—communicate the shift from the conceptual expansiveness underlying boogaloo to a more concentric approach.

Our Latin Thing does not feature Bataan. Despite having been one of the best-selling artists on the label, by the seventies Bataan had begun to feel “out of the limelight” as Fania focused energy on its Latino and Latina stars. These days, he’s happy to be re-affiliating with the label—he played the anniversary shows this summer in New York and California—which is under different ownership. Fania has in recent years been digitizing and reissuing its catalog, curating its legacy.

Boogaloo has crept back in, its return a tribute to a DJ culture that helped to rediscover it, making crate-digging a way to engage with history, and to the omnivorousness of music culture in the age of the web. Salsa has stepped aside, the zeitgeist that elevated it long since evaporated, inevitably, its urgency and edge dulled in time. The Fania die-hards dancing up front still respond to that history; there’s room enough now for everyone.

Jonathan Goldman is an associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology, Manhattan. He is the author of Modernism Is the Literature of Celebrity and has contributed to The Millions and The Chronicle of Higher Education.