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Seminal Latin Label's Music Resurrected

The founders of Fania Records didn't set out to change the course of Latin music, but that's just what they did. Fania signed artists such as Celia Cruz, Ruben Blades and Ray Barretto, who would eventually usher in the golden age of salsa.

The label went out of business in the late 1970s, and the records have since become hard-to-find collector's items. Now, a Miami-based record label is remastering and reissuing that music.

After the long-standing flow of music and musicians between the United States and Cuba came to an abrupt halt with the 1962 Cuban embargo, New York musician Johnny Pacheco teamed with Jerry Masucci (his divorce lawyer and a fellow music fan) to create Fania Records.

The first Fania albums were distributed to local record stores from the back of Pacheco's car. Slowly, Fania built its fan base throughout New York City. It reinvested profits back into the label and was eventually able to buy other well-known Latin music record labels.

Johnny Pacheco was developing a sound, an approach to making music that updated the traditions of Afro-Caribbean music. With techniques such as moving the percussion to front and center of songs, Pacheco meticulously crafted crisp, vibrant recordings for up-and-coming band leaders such as Willie Colon, as well as more established artists such as vocalist Cheo Feliciano.

Fania Records was also important for more than the notes and beats. Jose Cruz, who teaches political science at the State University of New York at Albany, says Fania albums became the soundtrack for black Cubans and Puerto Ricans who were inspired by the Civil Rights movement to become politically active.

"That music was instrumental for the evolution of a Puerto Rican identity on the island, then part of a process of developing a Latino identity once in the United States," Cruz says.

That musical identity soon had a name when the word salsa began to be used to represent a variety of Cuban and Puerto Rican music styles.

Some of the musicians took offense to the literal translation of "sauce" to describe their art; others just got out of the way and let that word, the music and Fania sell their records across the country.

"At first we didn't think we were anything special," Pacheco says, "until every place we went, the lines were unbelievable. They tried to rip the shirts off our backs. It reminded me of the Beatles."

But the successes of Fania eventually ran their course. Musical tastes changed, and the label stopped making new recordings in 1979. Jerry Masucci died in 1997 and the estate was tied up in probate for eight years.

Then last summer, Emusica Entertainment Group of Miami bought the entire catalog of more than 1,300 albums. Emusica vice president Giora Briel says they went hunting for the masters and were directed to a warehouse in upstate New York.

"Lo and behold, there were the multi-track tapes," Briel says. "It was like winning the lotto."

That jackpot could pay off, as Emusica starts releasing an average of 10 albums a month. Interest in the music is high among longtime fans. And in the age of the Puerto Rican-inspired reggaeton music, there is now a whole new generation of Latinos who want to hear what their parents have been raving about for 30 years.

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Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.