There is no place like New York City. In the middle of that enormity, there is Central Park. Today encompassing 843 acres, it was originally established as a permanent park in 1857, with the gentry class believing that urban dwellers needed a refuge in nature. Apparently, they were correct, and that was made apparent with the Fania Records 50th Anniversary concert celebration at Central Park's SummerStage. For those unaware of Fania Records -- or rather, for those without a need for the elementally rhythmic, mesmerizing and infectious grooves of Afro-Latino music -- while you're advised to read on, you may be excused. I, like the New Yorkers of yore, have needs. On this day, the needs were filled by the three very different Latin music acts on the bill, and the boisterous crowd that was there to cheer them on: Little Louie Vega, La Mecánica Popular, and the legendary Roberto Roena y Su Apollo Sound.
First, a primer. As most people know, New York City is a grand melting pot. Out of that gumbo has been produced myriad cultural exports, and among New York's many contributions, there is salsa music. It can be defined as combining elements of various styles of Latin music, jazz, African and rock, and all of those ingredients were found in the Big Apple. Starting in 1964, the label was created, showcasing the music of one of it's founders, Johnny Pacheco, and other well known greats such as Celia Cruz, Ray Barretto, Cheo Feliciano, Rubén Blades, and of course, Hector Lavoe. Such was the success of the label, the music and sound grew outward, picking up adherents throughout the Spanish speaking world, as well as those mentioned having poly-rhythmic needs. Fania Records grew in popularity with the renown of it's Fania All-Stars bands, and after the release of the 1972 Leon Gast directed documentary film, Our Latin Thing. The label eventually disbanded, while the All-Stars, and other artists continued to perform, spread the love of the music through live performances. Generations of New Yorkers and others grew up with the music, the Fania sound, as the soundtrack to their lives.
Which brings us back to Central Park. The opening set for the afternoon would seem unlikely to some. Little Louie Vega, el Maestro, the well-known, Grammy-winning DJ/producer of Masters at Work, has been a staple in his native New York's dance music scene for over 20 years. His many fans have always marveled at his ability to combine whatever is popular in contemporary and classic dance music with the foundations of his musical upbringing: salsa, and Fania. His latest effort, Elements of Life is a prime example for doing just that. His DJ set on this sunny Saturday afternoon would bring the same feeling as at any of the hundreds of nights he'd spin worldwide. This day, he'd be accompanied by vocalist, Josh Milan, performing hits, such as their "Children of the World" and "Celebrate": modern dance hits with Vega's signature multi-layered and orchestral sound. The audience, as always, danced energetically to his selections, only the house lights were the sunshine. Everybody loves the sunshine.
The second act was a local secret. Sort of. La Mecánica Popular is made up of eight members, hailing from Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and the U.S., but they all met in the mighty borough of Brooklyn. As an audience member, one could place a lot of faith in the history of the label, so my lacking knowledge of the band was bolstered by the buzzing of the crowd and the waving of the national flags (the World Cup was underway). There was no need to be swayed by the swell of people after the first notes were played, however. How to describe...? The band is obviously a "Latin" band, but their mix of influences is such that their provenance is hard to pin down. Much like Carlos Santana's bands of the early to mid-seventies incorporated Latin and African percussion, and drew heavily from the psychedelic fusion jazz of the day, La Mecánica Popular finds a common language for all music listeners. Part of this simply includes the propensity for inducing dance moves effected by the intense electronic amplification and manipulation of traditional instruments. They rock. Their roughly seventy five minute set consisted of meaty instrumental grooves, and solo vocals by three of the members of the band, searing guitar solos and, what appeared to be, live beat-making through an iPad. A soaring highlight was a salsa/techno cover of The Doors' "Riders of the Storm." What a treat this was for the excited crowd. No doubt they made a lot of new fans this day.
The headliner of the day was the legendary salsero Roberto Roena. Having been around for about as long as the term salsa had been coined, and one of the original signings to the Fania label, the audience was not only ready and waiting for the elder statesman -- they were practically levitating. As a listener of many kinds of music, but a master of none, this performance was a veritable clinic on what a Latin music showcase should include. In so many ways, his nearly two-hour set was filled with seemingly boundless energy, stage presence and showmanship -- and an abundance of everything that comes to mind when one thinks of the swagger of Latin music in a New York summer. His performance touched everyone in the huge, excited crowd. After five or six songs, about 70 percent of the audience, no longer content with just dancing, started a waving hands sing-along. This was a sight to behold because, among the flags waving in the crowd, one could spot Colombia (who'd won their soccer match earlier in the day), Puerto Rico, El Salvador and several others. It seemed the whole Latin diaspora was there adding their voices with Su Apollo Sound. One of the songs eliciting the biggest response was "Marejada Feliz", which means, "a happy tide." It was most appropriate, as there was unbridled joy pulsing through the crowd -- as if Central Park had become New York's block party for the afternoon. The movement that at one time was "Our Latin Thing," was now everyone's Latin thing. Apparently, the gentry class of the 19th century knew what they were thinking, with regard to the needs of New Yorkers. They were justo al punto. Con su són!
Fania Records will be celebrating their 50th Anniversary throughout the summer, including, The Fania All-Stars at Central Park SummerStage on August 24th.