When it comes to Latin music, one record label stands out from the pack: Fania. Often described as the Latin equivalent to Motown, this famous New York company was born from an unlikely union between Jerry Masucci, an Italian-American divorce lawyer, and Johnny Pacheco, a multi-talented musician from the Dominican Republic. Between them, they created a musical legacy that truly merged cultures. Perfectly illustrating this, the best Fania songs range from pulsating salsa grooves to searing disco-funk and syncopated slices of funky boogaloo.
Based in Spanish Harlem, Fania quickly set the gold standard in Latin music and became a vital conduit in North America for the dissemination of a new musical phenomenon called salsa. Its initial success with artists such as Ray Barretto, Bobby Valentin, and Joe Bataan led to the label’s expansion in the 70s. It was a time that not only witnessed the launch of a subsidiary imprint, Vaya, but also the acquisition of the Tico, Cotique, Inca, and Alegre labels, which included music by Celia Cruz, Joe Cuba Sextet, La Lupe, Pete Rodriguez, Tito Puente, and TNT Band.
The 70s was when Fania truly blossomed, thanks to the arrival of trombonist/producer Willie Colón, along with singers Héctor Lavoe and Rubén Blades. But it was Fania All-Stars, a supergroup drawn from all the big names in the Fania roster, that helped turn the label into a bona fide global brand via a series of thrilling records and sold-out concerts around the world.
Here we’ve picked the 20 best Fania songs that represent the breadth and depth of the label’s output. Think we’ve missed some? Let us know in the comments section, below.
20: Johnny Pacheco: Las Muchachas (1975)
Taken from Pacheco’s 16th Fania album, El Maestro, this effervescent horn-heavy salsa groove, fronted by Hector Casanova’s graceful vocals, demonstrates why the Dominican composer/arranger/bandleader was so highly regarded.
19: Orchestra Harlow: La Cartera (1974)
Produced and led by New York pianist Larry Harlow, Orchestra Harlow were an important act for Fania in the 70s. This vibrant tune was written by Cuban guitarist Arsenio Rodriguez and featured on the ensemble’s Salsa album.
18: Bobby Valentin: Use It Before You Lose It (1968)
This tough barrio percussion-driven groove features strident vocals from Marcelino “Junior” Morales. It came from the 1968 album Let’s Turn On/Arrebatarnos, by Puerto Rican trumpeter turned bandleader Bobby Valentin.
17: Rubén Blades: Plastico (1977)
Hot salsa flavours collide with sleek disco strings on this lead track from Siembra, Panama singer-songwriter Blades’ second collaboration with ace Fania arranger Willie Colón.
16: La Lupe: Fever (1968)
Hailed as the “Queen Of Latin Soul,” this dynamic and slightly deranged Cuban chanteuse was noted for her wild cover versions of pop hits. Here she injects the Peggy Lee-associated “Fever” with a hot salsa intensity.
15: Cheo Feliciano: Anacaona (1971)
Cheo Feliciano (real name José Luis Feliciano Vega) was a Puerto Rican singer-songwriter who rose to fame as the vocalist in Joe Cuba’s sextet. A scintillating salsa peppered with jazzy vibes, “Anacaona” came from the singer’s debut album, Cheo, for Fania’s subsidiary imprint Vaya.
14: Willie Colón: Calle Luna, Calle Sol (1973)
Nuyorican trombonist/producer Colón was a central figure in Fania’s success in the 70s. This effervescent tune (warning of the perils of living in a tough neighbourhood in Puerto Rico, and taken from Colón’s Lo Mato Si No Compre Este album) features sonorous brass over percussive beats.
13: Joe Bataan: Mambo De Bataan (1968)
Born Bataan Nitollano in NYC’s Spanish Harlem, Bataan started his recording career at Fania and later moved to Latin disco label Salsoul in the late 70s. This stirring percussion-powered groove finds Bataan’s raucous but soul-drenched vocal punctuated by raspy horns. It was one of the key cuts from his album Riot!
12: Héctor Lavoe: Mi Gente (1975)
One of salsa’s most famous singers, Puerto Rican-born Lavoe recorded this classic salsa tune for his debut solo Fania album, La Voz (The Voice). It was arranged by the redoubtable Willie Colón and is defined by sinuous dance rhythms and a rousing, singalong chorus.
11: Roberto Roena And Su Apollo Sound: Consolación (1970)
A Puerto Rican percussionist turned bandleader, Roena became a valued member of Fania All-Stars in the 70s. This contagious dance groove with fiery horns came from Roena’s debut album with his ten-piece band, Apollo Sound, helmed by Jerry Masucci.
10: Richie Ray And Bobby Cruz: Sonido Bestial (1971)
Loud, dissonant horns and a wild, jagged piano launch this riotous, intoxicating ten-minute salsa epic co-written by keyboardist Ray and singer Cruz. Bizarrely, it includes a long piano quote from a classical music piece by Russian composer Rachmaninov, as well as blues and jazz references. It was taken from the duo’s Vaya album El Bestial Sonido De Ricardo Ray Y Bobby Cruz.
9: Fania All-Stars: Cuando Despiertes (1980)
This pulsating tune, taken from their Commitment album, finds Fania’s multi talented supergroup fronted by the dynamic vocals of salsa queen Celia Cruz. The tune was co-written by Fania’s co-founder and the record’s producer, Jerry Masucci.
8: Ray Barretto: Soul Drummers (1968)
Taken from Barretto’s innovative Acid album, which is high on psychedelic, counterculture references, “Soul Drummers” is a hard-charging percussion extravaganza topped off with an infectious vocal refrain and blaring horns.
7: Bobby Marin: You’re Moving Much Too Fast (1968)
Born in New York City, but of Puerto Rican descent, Marin is a singer/songwriter/producer who pioneered the funky boogaloo style in the 60s. Here he channels the spirit of James Brown during the Godfather Of Soul’s “Cold Sweat” period on a single originally released by the Speed label. It later appeared on the 2008 Fania compilation, El Barrio: Back On The Streets Of Spanish Harlem.
6: Celia Cruz And Johnny Pacheco: Quimbara (1974)
Pattering percussion begins this locomotive salsa tune written by Junior Cepeda. It features the magisterial vocal of Fania’s First Lady, Cuban exile Celia Cruz. Pacheo, the label’s co-founder, played flute and percussion on this engaging collaborative project.
5: Joe Bataan: Subway Joe (1968)
“Subway Joe” was the evocative title track from Joe Bataan’s second Fania album, which followed in the wake of 1967’s groundbreaking Gypsy Woman, in which the Afro-Filipino singer-songwriter pioneered a dizzy meld of R&B, soul and Latin music.
4: Ray Barretto: El Watusi (1962)
This bespectacled percussion maestro was a musical mainstay of Fania, producing many classic albums in the 60s and 70s. Written by Barretto, “El Watusi” is a jaunty Latin escapade featuring spoken vocals, stabbing strings and a wild dancing flute. It was released as a single from his popular album Charanga Moderna.
3: Joe Cuba Sextet: Bang! Bang! (1966)
Born in New York to Puerto Rican parents, Joe Cuba (real name Gilberto Miguel Calderón Cardona) was a Latin superstar who scored mainstream US pop hits in the mid-60s with this memorable tune and the later “Oh Yeah!” Both were taken from the hit album Wanted Dead Or Alive (Bang! Bang! Push, Push, Push).
2: Tito Puente: Oye Cómo Va (1962)
In the 50s, percussionist extraordinaire Tito Puente was the undisputed king of the mambo style, but this, his most famous tune, released via the Tico label on his El Rey Bravo, was powered by addictive cha cha cha rhythms. The tune quickly became acknowledged as a classic and has been covered many times, most famously by Latin rock group Santana.
1: Pete Rodriguez: I Like It Like That (1968)
Topping our list of the 20 best Fania songs is this jaunty groove that established a template for the late 60s boogaloo style by fusing Latin and R&B flavours. Its author, Rodriguez, a Bronx-born pianist and bandleader, was nicknamed “King Of Boogaloo.” “I Like It Like That” was famously sampled by rapper Cardi B on her 2018 US R&B chart-topper, “I Like It.”