Discovering the Illmatic of Salsa

A spin through the prodigious Fania reissue catalog brings new appreciation for an old style

Until earlier this year, I only knew salsa as one of two musical genres you really don't want your downstairs neighbor to love and consequently blare at all hours, the other being Merzbow-style noise. But I'm learning the error of my ways, thanks to a recent influx of reissues and compilations from Fania Records.

Fania, the iconic Latin music label co-founded in 1964 by bandleader Johnny Pacheco and attorney Jerry Masucci, was acquired by the Miami-based company Emusica in late 2005. The new owners immediately set about refurbishing the back catalog, remastering the albums (as of 2006, the plan was to reissue at least 300 titles) and commissioning new liner-note essays from knowledgeable writers like Ernesto Lechner, Latin Beat contributor and former DJ Nelson Rodriguez, and descarga.com contributor John Child. Fania's also getting into the compilation business. Folks even I recognize as major figures (Ray Barretto, Willie Colón, Pacheco) get two-CD digipak collections, while second-tier but still important artists like Ismael Quintana and Roberto Roena get single-disc anthologies. Fania's also taking a tentative step toward the future, with Fania Live 01: From the Meat Market, a mix disc assembled by DJ Rumor.

In the last month, I've received about 50 Fania albums in the mail, including some of the aforementioned compilations. So far, the artists who leap out most vividly are trombonist-composer-producer Willie Colón and singers Ismael Rivera and La Lupe.

La Lupe, who died in 1992, was like a Puerto Rican Shirley Bassey—the first two songs on 1969's La Lupe Es la Reina, "Puro Teatro" and "Sueño," begin with string-and-horn fanfares that sound straight copped from "Goldfinger." She looks a little like Eartha Kitt in the cover photo, but she never purrs—she tears into every song like a lioness. She only really loses me on "That's the Way It's Gonna Be," when she starts singing in cartoonishly accented English—her accent makes Charo sound like Jane Seymour.

Reina de la Canción Latina, from 1968, might be even better. She's close to unhinged from the first notes of opener "Amor Gitano," the strings and horns backing her at full blare. She sounds like some dude might get stabbed to death in his sleep. After that start, though, it's an oddly tasteful and subdued set. Some of her upbeat tracks make the rhythm section sound like their arms might fly off from playing so fast, but there are only two of those, amid a lot of big-brass-'n'-orchestra ballads. But then she cuts loose on a berserk, bilingual version of "Fever."

I've got four albums by Colón ( El Malo, La Gran Fuga, El Juicio, and Lo Mato, all from between 1967 and 1975), one anthology (The Player), and two collaborations with Ruben Blades (1978's Siembra and 1981's Canciones del Solar de los Aburridos) that are more musically broad-minded and lyrically conscious than his other material. My favorite track, though there are plenty of candidates, is the title cut from 1967's El Malo, which has tons of energy from vocalist Héctor Lavoe and terrific, almost distorted trombone blowing from Colón. El Malo pretty much set the standard for New York salsa; it's like the Illmatic of the genre, and Colón was only 17 when he made it. He's got a thuggish image that's kind of kitschy/funny—he poses for a lot of album covers in mock 1920s gangster suits, holding his trombone like a submachine gun. But the music mixes raw energy and intervals of surprising subtlety in a way that's much more interesting than the packaging might indicate.

Ismael Rivera's voice suggests he could be Tego Calderón's uncle or something. They've got similar vocal timbre and share a heavy Puerto Rican accent; I can pick out whole Rivera lyrics, though, whereas Calderón's recent El Subestimado is a brick wall of macho mumbling. Rivera's bands on the two discs I have—1977's De Todas Maneras Rosas and 1978's Esto Si Es lo Mio—are tight without seeming tense or jumpy. The relatively small horn section (one trumpet, one trombone, and one saxophone on Maneras) doesn't have the gleaming blare of other Fania projects, offering more of a jazzy, blurry warmth without sacrificing impact.

Basically, Rivera sounds completely at peace with himself and his style, never seeming like a performer. His proletarian mixture of gruffness and placid joy is really captivating. He's not going over the top, but he's not talk-singing either. He reminds me of saxophonist Hank Mobley, a guy who was regarded in his time as a middle-of-the-road hard-bopper—even decried as boring by folks who wanted more fire 'n' fury from jazz—but whose work stands up incredibly well 40 or even 50 years later. I could listen to Hank Mobley all day, and I feel the same way about Ismael Rivera.

When I decided to dive into salsa, I did it half-jokingly, figuring it'd be almost impossible to tell one artist's records from another's, the way it is for me with polka or dancehall or noise. But in fact, '60s and '70s salsa was a wild-ass, incredibly varied genre made by an army of musical innovators. And its anarchic energy is pure New York. The horns have a brassy blare that immediately grabs your attention and keeps it, and the intricate but steady rhythms are hypnotic even if, like me, you wouldn't dare let other people see you dancing. Even the piano sound, which I used to find clattery and nerve-jangling, has grown on me a little. Iconic labels—Stax, Motown, Earache, Def Jam, Kompakt—own and define their chosen genre, and Fania definitely belongs in that lineage. It's a great thing to have these records back in print, ready for rediscovery.

 
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