Ray Barretto - "Mercy Mercy Baby" (Fania Records 1964-1980: The Original Sound of Latin New York)
To compose a son, Ismael Miranda tells us in “Así se compone un son,” requires a motiv, a constructive theme and inspiration. A simple formula, really, that describes well the creation and creative output of Fania Records. Founded by Johnny Pacheco and Jerry Masucci in New York in 1964, the label quickly became a mainstay of the burgeoning Latin music movement in the United States. Best known for the style of Afro-Caribbean son popularly called “salsa,” Fania also served as testbed for more adventurous styles, especially those that mixed in Afro-American soul, R&B and jazz. Fania Records 1964-1980: The Original Sound of Latin New York represents a sort of best-of album, not dipping into the most obscure or unusual tracks, but fairly representing the most popular examples of the label’s output. As such, it has a mix of better and less known performers, studio and live tracks (including “Quítate tu” from the famous 1971 Fania All Stars session at the Cheetah, complete with tape squeak).
These tracks offer a good sense of what was possible at the time: rich hybrids of soul, jazz, son, changuí, rock ‘n’ roll and, on occasion, a flash of classical piano (the middle third of Richie Ray & Bobby Cruz’s “Sonido bestial” is basically Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude,” with drum set and congas maintaining the beat). Latin Soul examples include Joe Bataan’s story of a poor guy riding the subway who gets beaten up (twice) by a cute girl, “Subway Joe,” Ray Barretto’s classic “Mercy Mercy Baby” from his 1968 album Acid! (which brought boogaloo to the masses), and Bobby Valentin’s “Use It Before You Lose It” from his 1967 album Let’s Turn On. Other cuts mix styles but keep them separate at the same time, such as two 1974 offerings, Roberto Roena’s “Que se sepa” a son with bursts of funky drumming, and Mongo Santamaría’s “O Mi Shango,” which marries Santería drumming with jazz-rock fusion. One surprise inclusion is “Pedro Navaja,” Ruben Blades and Willie Colón’s sly Latin realization of the Brecht/Weil gangster ballad “Mack the Knife,” complete with background sirens, crowd noises and a radio announcer informing listeners of a murder. Although this song was very influential in both Americas, spawning a Mexican movie of the same name, a Peruvian musical (“La verdadera historia de Pedro Navaja”), and numerous cover versions, it rarely appears in standard salsa compilations.
Fania Records 1964-1980 also gives a sense of what was less possible in the New York scene of the time. Women, for example, are represented exclusively by Celia Cruz, and at that only on three cuts, “Quimbara” with Johnny Pacheco, “Sonaremos el tambo” with Sonora Poncena, and “Cuando despiertas” with the Fania All Stars. In other words, only 10 percent of the tracks feature women performers. Also missing is Tito Puente who, although he hardly owed his career to Fania, certainly graced the label more than once, often in tandem with Celia Cruz.
Nevertheless, this retrospective compilation provides a good overview of Fania Records and its role in the explosion of New York’s Latin music scene. Listeners who are already familiar with Fania’s output may not find anything new in this collection, but everyone will find plenty to enjoy.