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Spicing up that beat

Times Staff Writer

ONCE, a record label of the humblest beginnings turned into an international powerhouse by gambling on unknown talent in a minority community overlooked or underestimated by the industry at large. Its success was fueled by tirelessly promoting artists intent on asserting their cultural identity and seeking recognition within the U.S. mainstream.

In the ‘60s, that label was Motown Records.

In the ‘70s, it was Fania Records, the barrio label once peddled from the back of a truck in the streets of New York that single-handedly set the whole world dancing to a salsa beat.

Starting next month, Fania’s extensive and vital music vaults will be rejuvenated with the first in a series of reissues, as well box sets available for the first time. The label’s catalog of salsa classics are being rereleased on CD with refurbished sound and fresh liner notes after its recent purchase by Miami-based Emusica Entertainment Group.

Just as Motown shaped soul and R&B;, Fania created its own sound in Latin dance music. It was based on traditional Afro-Caribbean styles with an array of rhythms -- son, guaguanco, bomba, plena, rumba, merengue, mambo. But Fania’s savvy promoters were the first to market the modernized versions under a single catch-all expression that became a readily recognizable brand in any language: salsa.

The music was so influential that it inspired Carlos Santana to create Latin rock, turning Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va” into a crossover smash. At its peak, salsa became so popular that the Fania All Stars, the label’s supergroup, went from playing small Latin clubs to selling out Yankee Stadium. Their concerts, many recorded for live albums, were electrifying events that drew wild fan followings from the Congo to Tokyo.

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“It’s almost like every release they had, small or large, had artistic value,” says veteran music executive Bill Marin, Fania’s West Coast promoter in the mid-'70s. “The music made a difference. It gave you the pulse of something fresh and new.”

Fania’s catalog includes many historic recordings and several musical milestones. Among the notables:

* The very first albums made by a then-beardless Eddie Palmieri with his groundbreaking 1960s band, La Perfecta.

* The early works of singer-songwriter Ruben Blades, including 1977’s “Siembra,” his second album with bandleader Willie Colon, considered the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” of salsa music for its fresh sound and complex songs.

* The first collaboration between Dominican bandleader and Fania co-founder Johnny Pacheco with singer Celia Cruz, 1974’s “Celia & Johnny,” one of the bestselling salsa albums of all time.

* The career work of the late Hector Lavoe, a brash but beloved street singer specializing in quick-witted improvisations and exquisitely soulful boleros. This revered folk figure’s tragic life is the subject of a new movie to star Marc Anthony, now in production.

* The early live recordings of the Fania All Stars, especially 1971’s “Live at the Cheetah” (Volumes 1 and 2), which was featured in the documentary “Our Latin Thing,” helping spark the ‘70s salsa explosion.

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It began with ambition

THE label was launched in 1964 by Pacheco and his Brooklyn-born attorney, Jerry Masucci, a former New York cop who had handled the bandleader’s divorce. The pair set about signing unknown bands led by artists who would later become salsa superstars, including trombonist Willie Colon, pianist Larry Harlow, bongocero Roberto Roena, conguero Ray Barretto and bassist Bobby Valentin. Their company became so powerful it soon gobbled up the catalogs of older Latin labels, such as Tico and Alegre, bringing into the fold almost every significant salsa artist from that era, outside of Cuba.

The long-awaited purchase of Fania comes at a time when sales of new salsa CDs are down dramatically. Still, it’s a testament to Fania’s strength that it was able to survive exclusively on catalog sales long after its heyday faded in the early ‘80s and its stable of artists scattered to other record companies. Until the recent sale of its assets, the label was shrouded in a web of lawsuits from aggrieved artists and a confusing trail of ownership after Masucci’s mysterious move to Argentina, where he died in 1997.

The corporate and probate entanglements stalled previous acquisition efforts even by the most eager and resourceful of suitors, such as Zach Horowitz, president of Universal Music Group.

“I’m just happy as a fan that this stuff is going to come out again,” says Horowitz, who settled for a distribution deal with Fania’s new owners. “It’s the first time in 30 years, maybe ever, that somebody has done the historic treatment this catalog deserves.”

Music executive Giora Breil had been trying for five years to acquire Fania. But only after sealing the deal last summer did he realize he may have unearthed previously unreleased gems in the bargain.

In trying to match paperwork to some 13,000 tracks on 1,300 albums, Breil was led to a storage facility in upstate New York, near a farm once owned by Masucci. But instead of files, the new owner found a stash of original, multitrack tapes, used to mix and master the original releases.

Some of the studio tapes were too old and unstable to play without risking damage. Thus began the process of actually baking the salsa tapes to loosen the old emulsion and perhaps liberate a trove of forgotten or discarded songs from one of the great Latin music eras of all time.

“We haven’t been able to hear everything,” said Breil, a former advertising and Spanish television executive. “It’s quite possible we are sitting on stuff we don’t even know yet, because it’s kind of hard to put your arms around 40 years of recording.”

The first batch of 30 Emusica reissues is scheduled for Feb. 28. They are all being remastered and repackaged with original art, new liner notes and lower prices. (The old Fania rarely discounted.) The new owners (Breil and partners Stuart Livingston, Bob Grever and David Good) also recently acquired the Kubaney label, respected primarily for Dominican merengue.

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No ordinary restoration

ALTHOUGH much of the Fania catalog has been issued previously on CD, many of those digital versions suffer from poor sound quality, far inferior to the original vinyl releases. Many were digitized without being remastered, sometimes transferred from vinyl copies rather than original master tapes.

Much of the work to prepare the old recordings for a digital rebirth is being done by Grammy-winning mastering engineer Bob Katz at his Digital Domain studio outside Orlando, Fla. Though the quality of the old masters varies widely, Katz said, state-of-the-art mastering equipment can fill in sound gaps, called dropouts, and reveal even richer detail than the originals.

“This is more than a restoration,” said Katz, who is married to salsa author Mary Kent. “It’s what I would call a renovation.”

The discovery of the multitrack studio tapes opens even more tantalizing possibilities. It means new mixes would be possible, using separate tracks that hold discrete elements -- Cruz’s voice, Barretto’s congas, Puente’s timbales.

The thought tempts veteran sound engineer Jon Fausty, credited with raising recording standards on scores of Fania productions.

“I’d love to get my hands on those multitracks,” says Fausty, who worked with Wilson Pickett, Gene Pitney and others before becoming staff engineer at Fania in 1971. “They’re my recordings, and it would be very exciting to take part in the reprocessing of this wonderful old music to make it sound as good as we did back then.”

So far, however, there are no plans for making remixes. Breil, a German immigrant who moved to New York the year Fania was founded, says the first reissues will remain true to the originals.

“We inherited a cultural responsibility here,” he says. “Fania is part of the patrimonio latino, the wealth of Latin culture.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

All a part of the music

Salsa Talks!

A Musical Heritage Uncovered

By Mary Kent

(Digital Domain, $59.95)

¡Cocinando! Fifty Years

of Latin Album Cover Art

By Pablo Yglesias

(Princeton Architectural Press, $19.95)

THE salsa explosion of the 1970s was more than a musical trend. It was a lifestyle, with its own fashion, dances and iconic images. Some of the flair of the era is captured in two recent books that focus on salsa images and image-makers.

Photographer Mary Kent’s hard-bound tome is a colorful collection of her photos and interviews with major salsa figures. The hefty book provides a rare compendium of recollections straight from the mouths of key players, gathered over 15 years as she chased down artists and promoters on subways and in dressing rooms. The in-their-own-words format sometimes leads to disjointed or dry reading. But there’s plenty of history and behind-the-scenes gossip as well as artistically revealing or moving passages.

Pablo Yglesias’ book is a collection of album covers that span a much broader field, including Latin rock and Brazilian music. The chapter on salsa captures the humor and bravado of the Fania era -- including the Willie Colon “Wanted by the FBI” cover that had to be recalled because people actually started calling the agency to report on the bandleader’s whereabouts. This and many other Fania covers were designed by eccentric salsa illustrator Izzy Sanabria, who writes the book’s foreword.

Both books (available through Amazon.com) could have benefited from more attention to detail, especially more caption information on Kent’s photos. But perusing them brings back the spirit of the time, as recalled in Fania founder Jerry Masucci’s own words: “It was new, it was interesting, it was exciting, and it was fun.”

-- A.G.


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