Fans of Latin funk and lush Afro-Cuban grooves remember the Seventies with glee, when the New York salsa explosion made Latin music appear as edgy and unpredictable as rock & roll. At the core of this movement was Fania, the Motown of salsa, a record label bold enough to mastermind the ultimate Afro-Caribbean orchestra of all time.
The concept behind the Fania All-Stars was that every one of its members – from the backup vocalists to the timbales player – would be an iconic bandleader in his own right. Putting together 15 wealthy music stars on the same stage and expecting them to make beautiful sounds together is a recipe for disaster, right? Incredibly, the part-time band soldiered on through two decades of soulful studio albums and unassuming little gigs at venues such as Yankee Stadium.
By the late Eighties, though, there was no adrenaline left. Fania collapsed, and the genre of authentic, hardcore salsa became a thing of the past. Still, it has remained an organic part of the Latin music DNA, informing major genres like reggaetón and pop.
Enter Albert Torres, a promoter of Puerto Rican descent who this month is doing the unthinkable: reuniting the Fania All-Stars for a May 25th gig as part of the annual Salsa Congress he has been organizing in Los Angeles for the past 15 years.
Torres tried a similar experiment in 1999, but this new reunion is shaping up to be the definitive – and quite possibly the last – opportunity to delve into authentic Fania nostalgia while the group's few remaining veterans are still in the building.
"I was 15 years old when the All-Stars played at the Cheetah nightclub in 1971, and my life was forever changed," explains Torres. "Suddenly, I wanted to learn Spanish and devote my life to this music. The band has performed shows in South American soccer stadiums to crowds of 50,000. There was no way I could organize a reunion of that scope, so I personally called each musician individually and convinced them to participate in this concert for U.S. fans."
Billed as "Legends of Salsa" for contractual reasons, the show will bring together original All-Stars vocalists Ismael Miranda and Adalberto Santiago with Jewish-American pianist Larry Harlow (one of salsa's true pioneers), percussionist Roberto Roena and more than a dozen other genre veterans.
"I was the youngest of the bunch," explains Miranda, who was only 19 when he joined the All-Stars in 1969. "I started out as a fan, and then the old guys became my friends and mentors. Sadly, I've seen most of them pass away, one after the other. Now I see it as my responsibility to keep this music alive. I want it to go on forever."
"It's hard to put a finger on what it was that made Seventies salsa so special," explains Jimmy Bosch, a younger trombonist who participated in several Fania sessions and will be performing with the band. "It was the times, too – everything that was going on socially and politically. People like me, who discovered that music then, we've never steered away from it."
At the Los Angeles show, the All-Stars will probably perform "Quítate Tú," an extended jam session that finds the Fania vocalists bragging about their accomplishments while taking humorous digs at each other. Then, of course, there's the original Fania sound itself: funky layers of brass, complex polyrhythms and jazzy piano lines anchoring the raw salsa groove.
"You know what irks me?" says Torres. "The young Latinos who know nothing about this music. If you knew that the Beatles and the Stones were playing together for the last time, wouldn't you want to be there? I'm the only one who had the balls to put together a show like this."