It's Fania salsa remastered, with a true kick

Times Staff Writer

Fania Records is known as the Motown of salsa music, a label that ignited and then monopolized the salsa explosion of the 1970s in New York. But until this year, the exciting music of that era could not be appreciated with the top-quality sound of the original vinyl LPs, because the company had done a terrible job of making the digital transfer to CD format.

Now under new ownership, the Fania roster of stars such as Celia Cruz and Ruben Blades is being remastered and reissued with refurbished sound and new liner notes. This great music finally comes across with the clear power and dynamic depth originally captured in the studio during one of the most exciting times in Latin music.

Here is a guide to the best of the 165 titles released this year. The mystery is why so many great albums are still missing. Where are classics such as Tipica 73's "La Candela," Larry Harlow's "Salsa," Roberto Roena's "No. 6" and Ismael Miranda's "En Fa Menor"? For some reason, the new label, Miami-based Emusica, chose to first issue lesser releases by these artists.

Well, at least that leaves something good for next year. Meanwhile, remember: Salsa makes a tasty stocking stuffer.

1. Willie Colon / Ruben Blades, "Siembra" (1978). Two words: "Pedro Navaja." This milestone album contains Blades' signature tune and perhaps the best-known salsa song of the era. Loosely based on "Mack the Knife," the song showcases Blades' knack for storytelling with memorable melody and swing, a narrative style that revolutionized the genre. This is the second album from this creative collaboration between the Panamanian singer-songwriter and Colon, the brash Puerto Rican bandleader and arranger. With its rousing social commentary and unconventional sound, "Siembra" set the salsa world on fire and remains one of the most original and influential works of the last half century, in any style. Also recommended: the duo's smoldering follow-up, 1981's "Canciones del Solar de los Aburridos."

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2. Willie Colon with Hector Lavoe, "El Juicio" (1972) Before hooking up with Blades, Colon was already "El Malo," the tough guy of New York salsa. He made a series of ebullient, street-smart albums with the late Lavoe, his original vocalist and co-writer considered an icon of young Nuyoricans. "El Juicio" (The Trial) is not their best-known work, but it is the best overall example of their style -- cool, irreverent, at times wild, at times achingly romantic. Propelled by Colon's killer rhythm section, this album captures the youthful fun and energy of a maturing movement still unspoiled by commercialism. Runner-up by the duo: 1973's "Lo Mato."

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3. Orquesta Harlow, "Hommy, A Latin Opera" (1973). This album brought Celia Cruz out of retirement, ushering in her subsequent 30-year reign as Queen of Salsa. Here, she's featured on one track, "Gracia Divina," as a character in pianist Larry Harlow's salsa take-off on the Who's rock opera, "Tommy." Far from derivative, though, this work thoroughly salsifies the concept. The arrangements are fabulous, the first time a symphony orchestra was used in salsa, according to Harlow. The stentorian narrator is the underappreciated Heny Alvarez, Harlow's co-writer. The rest of the cast features star vocalists of the day, including a young Junior Gonzalez as Hommy. A tribute to salsa's ambitious spirit.

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4. Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco, "Celia & Johnny" (1974). This is the album that first featured Cruz after she signed with Fania, the first and best of six collaborations between the Cuban singer and the Dominican bandleader and flutist. It was one of the biggest-selling albums of the Fania boom and remains a must-have classic. Pacheco used a tipico conjunto sound (two trumpets and a tres, the Cuban guitar) that harkened to Celia's beginnings in 1950s Havana with the Sonora Matancera. Aside from the hits "Quimbara" and "Toro Mata," the album features a tender Celia on the gorgeous bolero "Vieja Luna" (Old Moon) and a hip Celia on the romantic kiss-off "Lo Tuyo Es Mental" (Your Case Is Mental).

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5. The Fania All Stars, "Live at Yankee Stadium, Vols. 1 and 2" (1975). This concert captured the salsa explosion at its volcanic peak. Forget that it really didn't happen at Yankee Stadium. (That concert was aborted after a near-riot.) The tracks were taken from the all-star band's show at Puerto Rico's Roberto Clemente Stadium, as you can clearly hear from Lavoe's shout-out on what became his signature song, the uplifting Pacheco tune "Mi Gente" (My People). Lavoe is joined by Fania's incredible lineup of singing stars who take turns fronting this powerhouse all-star unit. The closing conga duel between Ray Barretto and Mongo Santamaria on "Congo Bongo" will leave your speakers smoking.

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7. Ismael Miranda, "Asi Se Compone un Son" (1973). This is the first solo album by singer Miranda after leaving Orquesta Harlow; he started his own band, appropriately named Orquesta Revelacion. The title track means "this is how you compose a son," referring to the Cuban genre at the root of salsa. The recording quality is among the best Fania ever achieved. The scorching tune "Ahora Si" (Now's the Time) captured the take-no-prisoners, outta-my-way ethos of these young Turks, featuring pianist Oscar Hernandez, who went on to play with Blades and most recently with the popular Spanish Harlem Orchestra. Miranda's vocals are powerful and passionate, especially on the dramatic tango adaptation "Las Cuarentas."

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8. Jose "Cheo" Feliciano, "Cheo" (1974). Salsa without horns? Yes, the brass is replaced by vibes (Louie Ramirez) on this beautiful collection celebrating the comeback of singer Feliciano following drug rehab. All the songs were written by Puerto Rico's greatest salsa songwriter, Tite Curet Alonso, including "Anacaona," a tune about an Indian slave woman that would become a standard for Feliciano, former lead singer with Joe Cuba's crack sextet (not to be confused with the "Feliz Navidad" guy). Cheo, as fans affectionately called him, became a star with this album, which showcased his distinctive phrasing and his smooth style on boleros that would define his career. The remastered sound is vivid.

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9. Bobby Rodriguez y la Compania, "Salsa at Woodstock" (1976). This band was a blast, and you can hear it here live. This is a follow-up to its auspicious debut, "Lead Me to That Beautiful Band," which quickly established Rodriguez (sax, flute, clarinet) as the up-and-coming talent to watch, though his flame burned out prematurely. His early work proved that each band could have an emblematic sound, despite the rap that salsa all sounded the same. La Compania was comfortably bilingual, with songs such as "Sunday Kind of Love" and Blades' "What Happened." This music is pure celebration, youthful and fun.

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10. Justo Betancourt, "Pa' Bravo Yo" (1972). The understated Betancourt was one of the few Cuban vocalists in the Fania lineup, and he brought a true rumba feel to his music from his birthplace, Matanzas, Cuba's cradle of the rumba. The title cut, which seem like a rap-style boast about being the toughest cat around, actually is a poetic, self-assured expression of Afro-Caribbean roots and identity. Betancourt went on to form his own band, Borincuba, but his early solo work is his best.

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Also recommended:

11. Eddie Palmieri, "Vamonos Pa'l Monte" (1976). The best album by this progressive pianist, "The Sun of Latin Music," was on a rival label, Coco Records. But most any other work from the era makes a good substitute. The title cut alone on "Vamonos Pa'l Monte," with singer Ismael Quintana, is worth the money.

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12. Mark Dimond, "Brujeria" (1971). A bewitching work by this brilliant African American pianist, featuring quirky singer Angel Canales, who went on to become a solo star.

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13. Hector Lavoe, "La Voz" (1975). Lavoe's stunning solo debut features an extended piano solo by Mark Dimond on "Rompe Saraguey" that never gets old.

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14. Celia Cruz and Willie Colon, "Only They Could Have Made This Album" (1977). Any singer -- even the great Celia -- benefited from teaming with Colon's band. This is their first and best collaboration.

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15. Willie Colon, "Tiempo Pa' Matar" (1984). One of the most compelling and personal post-boom salsa albums, and one of the strongest since Colon decided to handle his own vocals.

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16. Ray Barretto, "Indestructible" (1973). Barretto is pictured on the cover removing his glasses and shirt to reveal a Superman outfit underneath. The title cut captures the optimistic spirit of Latino unity and strength that helped fuel the salsa boom.

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17. Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez, "El Conde" (1974). Straight-up salsa from Johnny Pacheco's former lead singer, one of the smoothest crooners in the business, in his solo debut.

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18. Sonora Poncena, "Musical Conquest" (1976). A strong entry in an endless catalog by this still-working Puerto Rican institution fronted by stylish pianist Papo Lucca. On vinyl, it was hard to get past Side 1.

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19. Tito Puente, "Homenaje a Beny More" (1978). A scintillating tribute to Cuba's greatest sonero by Puerto Rico's King of the Timbal, featuring an all-star lineup of singers.

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20. Alegre All Stars, "Te Invita" (compilation). This is a collection of swinging 1960s descargas by an all-star band from producer Al Santiago and the legendary Alegre label, which Fania eventually swallowed up. Charlie Palmieri, Eddie's brother, plays piano on tunes that lit the fuse for the salsa boom.

agustin.gurza@latimes.com

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