Fania's Santiago Sessions: How a Globetrotting DJ's Childhood Led to Him Re-imagining Classics

Darrell Alonzi
Jose Marquez

The Fania sound featuring some of the most renowned salsa singers and musicians in history may have had its heyday in the '70s and '80s, but its legendary catalog of music keeps on giving. Just ask DJ Jose Marquez. 

As a kid growing up in Los Angeles, Marquez's mom often played her collection of Fania records and even though her son didn't appreciate the music much in his youth, he became well versed in the label's signature stars. The house was often blasting with songs by Celia Cruz, Willie Colon, Ray Barretto, Tito Puente and Hector Lavoe, among others who are part of the Fania Records family.

"When I was a kid in the '90s I was all about hip-hop and techno," said Marquez, 39. "I didn't know much about music then and kind of thought that some of the stuff my mom was listening to was cheesy. Then I got older and I really discovered Fania."

That full circle moment manifested into a successful music career for Marquez who produced the Aug. 25 release of the latest Fania project: Santiago Sessions featuring six Afro-Cuban themed songs from the Fania vault as part of the Hammock House remix series.

 “We are thrilled to have Jose as part of the Fania Collective as well as the opportunity to release this amazing EP,” says Sara Skolnick, Fania’s Director of Music Experience.  “As we head into the brands 55th year we are excited to see where this partnership takes us into the future.”

Fania’s recent debut of Fania Collective features DJs from around the world who are introducing the Fania brand to younger audiences. Marquez, who produced Santiago Sessions, is one of those DJs.

“At Fania, we see working with DJs and creating remixes of the original classic as a huge opportunity to target a new audience and thus begin a lifelong connection with the Fania brand,” Skolnick said. “It’s working incredibly well. We’ve increased our social media engagement with 18-34 year olds by more than 150% in the last two years.”

Recently completing a tour in Europe, Marquez will perform at a record release party at Kinfolk as part of the Armada Fania DJ pop series in Brooklyn on Sept. 7, before going on an extensive tour throughout the U.S.  

For the EP, Marquez knew that the biggest challenge was to keep the spirit of the original music while incorporating new elements that could appeal to older generations and young music fans alike.

"My original goal was not to enhance the original because I respect the work that was already done and those songs are masterpieces," Marquez said. "I wanted to give the music a different element that was relatable to today's audience and encourage them to get up and dance."

As a thriving DJ who travels the globe extensively, Marquez's appreciation for strong musicianship led him to call upon musicians not only familiar with the Fania sound, but recording artists who did not think twice about jumping onboard to support the project. As with all things digital, everyone worked in their own studios, recorded their contributions and sent Marquez their files.

The project was like a puzzle, Marquez said, and every piece had to fit just right as he gave the original songs new life without losing the charm of the Fania sound. Here are some more insights on how these Fania classics were re-imagined:

"Aguanile," the classic composition performed by Hector Lavoe, "was already an amazing song," Marquez said, "but I reworked it for the dance floor," which meant that the percussion had to be right. The congas by Bobby Wilmore and Lazaro Galarraga boosts the track to new heights and Claudio Passavanti's work on piano and bass is on point.

"Indestructible," featuring Ray Barretto, was "intimidating to take on," concedes Marquez, but he decided that giving the track a Latin jazz vibe was the way to go and included Passavanti's piano and bass work in addition to congas by Ismel Wignall and a killer saxophone arc by Elias Perez.

No doubt that Tito Puente slays "Africa Linda," but Marquez wanted to emphasize the Africa theme more in contrast to the original salsa-centric classic. He called up his friend Quetzal Guerrero, a violinist who actually played with Tito Puente when he was 10 and a spiritual and musical union emerged. "When I first heard the song I had goose bumps," Marquez recalls. 

Celia Cruz's vocals can fill a room like few can, so when Marquez heard "Un Bembe Pa' Yemaya" he felt that the song needed stronger musical elements to match Cruz commanding voice. The original orchestration felt "cheesy," but something richer with more depth came as a result of highlighting the congas and bata drums by Wilmore and Galarraga.

For "Cotique All Stars," Marquez updated the sound by adding three key instruments performed by three of the best: congas by Alberto Lopez, shaker by Steve Haney and timbales by Michael Duffy. The trio along with the original song's Joe Pastrana lifts the track and the spirits.

“Herencia Africana” also features Cruz in a track that honors her African roots. “The original is a nice salsa song, but I wanted this song to have a strong African sound,” Marquez said. Having Sidy Maiga on the djembe (drums) and Balla Kouyaté on the balafon (xylophone) made all the difference.

Check out the full album here: 

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