Salseros supplanted by DJs as Fania All-Stars can’t revive glory days

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To be a fan of salsa music in New York during the ‘60s and ‘70s was to witness an explosion—a growing diversity of Latinos came together to create a new kind of Latin music that was no longer dependent on Cuban exports and reflected the gritty reality of living in the city.

At the center of the blast radius was upstart record label Fania and its eponymous band, Fania All-Stars. Founded by Dominican bandleader Johnny Pacheco and attorney Jerry Masucci in 1964, Fania grew to prominence buoyed by acts like Willie Colón, Ruben Blades, Hector Lavoe, Celia Cruz and Cheo Feliciano. The All-Stars’ immortalizing live show at the Cheetah Club in 1971 defined what music could and should be for a generation of salsa fans who saw it live, as well as generations to come who listened to the live album.

Half a century later, the thirst for Fania’s raucous brand of music remains, but the demand outweighs the supply. On a mysteriously cool late summer afternoon in Central Park last Sunday, salsa lovers, young and old, cocolo y roquero streamed into Central Park Summerstage to celebrate Fania’s 50th anniversary with a DJ dance party with no trumpets, timbaleros, or soneros. This confusing-yet-mellow ambience is a consolation prize following the cancellation earlier this month of what was to be a staggering super-concert featuring a massive crew of Fania All-Stars, Victor Manuelle, and all the memories of the Cheetah Club that people were prepared to muster.

“It just didn’t work out,” said Michael Rucker, chief marketing officer of Fania’s parent company, Codigo, backstage as the Whiskey Barons DJ duo finished its set of remixed classics, pushing the mellow scene into a frenzy that seemed to fit the globalized digitalism of EDM salsa style. “There were 30-something musicians, which means you’re dealing with 30-something egos, and we couldn’t get everyone in the same time and the same place.”

The cancellation was not without controversy. Former Fania All-Stars manager Richie Viera posted a rant on Facebook—and reposted by social media gadfly and salsa legend Willie Colón—griping about payment arrangements, getting paid for the proposed filming of the event and lost opportunities for musicians who had saved the date. Some of the original salsa masters would not comment, and there was some further online noise made about the ticket prices, originally listed as $90 general admission and $1000 for VIP seating.

[UPDATE 8/28/2014: After reading this piece, Willie Colon wanted to comment further. .]

One musician who did talk, Eddie Palmieri, doesn’t even consider his music salsa despite being one of Fania’s brightest stars. A brilliant jazz pianist grounded in high-energy big band mambo and complex music theory, Palmieri helped to define what would become known as the “Fania sound” by arranging the sassy, streetwise sound of trombones on the front line. “I would call my music ‘Afro-World,’” said Palmieri.

But Palmieri also alluded to the way the times of social upheaval, which featured the Civil Rights Movement, the Young Lords, and widespread protest against the Vietnam War as inseparable from the genre. Blades, in the past, cited the Palmieri classic “Justicia” as an inspiration for statement songs like “Plástico,” from the album he did with Colón called Siembra. One of its top-selling albums, Siembra was a Fania highpoint where it seemed everything about salsa—dancing, storytelling, political unity—came together to form a unique identity.

Because Fania was home to all of the major players at the height of this idealistic passion—as well as having absorbed foundational labels like Tico and Alegre—it became synonymous with salsa. The genre appeared to begin a decline as Fania decayed in the 80s and 90s. And despite all the great work by its original stars on major labels, the idealism also waned. Pretty boy vocalists were favored, musicians’ skills no longer valued, and the youth embraced Latin pop, hip-hop or rock.

What we have left are memories. Memories of how we created our Nuyo-Latino identities, of how we try to maintain the spirit of the dance and re-connect with the Spanish language. This was DJ Bobbito Garcia’s message as he played a briskly-paced set of Richie Ray/Bobby Cruz, Barretto, Sonora Ponceña and Palmieri. When Garcia commissioned new pieces from Palmieri for “Doin’ it in the Park,” his documentary about street basketball, he was fusing his jíbaro roots with his urban passions. “The music has to transition to be relevant to a new audience, but at the same time have the values of the old audience, and at times it’s a difficult line to walk,” said Garcia backstage.

While the elements of a “scene,” or even an organic space for salsa bands to play regularly no longer exist in New York, sparks still fly. Bands like La Mecánica Popular, with an emphasis on psychedelic guitar, played a Fania Summerstage event in June. Spoken word poet/actor Flaco Navaja pops up all over town doing his “old school salsa mixed with stories from the hiphop generation.” New bands from Puerto Rico like Pirulo y su Tribu and El Macabeo have made their mark. And DJ acts like the Whiskey Barons and Joe Clausell pull off a powerful remixing act, allowing a new generation to not only hold onto the past, but claim the music as their own.

“It’s not quite like seeing a live band,” said Maria Laboy, a millennial salsa fanatic who with her sister Suset forms La Laboy PR, a consultancy group. “Salsa is alive through people who take classes, in dance studios. But it’s not like it used to be, in those old clubs. A whole different sense of culture and identity has been created that way.”

Some live shows remain. Colón recently played in Lehman College in the Bronx, Palmieri will play S.O.B.’s in Manhattan on Sept. 6. And while the bad old Fania days are dead and gone, its meaning is still transmitted in its slow, hip-swinging trance, carving out a salsa space in whatever place it shows up.

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