Latino Music Interview: Oscar Hernandez – Part 1

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I had the privilege to have a conversation with the maestro Oscar Hernandez, how is Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s musical director. Here is an excerpt of that conversation.

LMC: Oscar, welcome to Latino Music Cafe. You’re going to be playing in Seattle’s Jazz Alley; a Jazz club. Does the Spanish Harlem Orchestra plays differently when you play in a jazz venue?

Oscar Hernandez: It’s very common for the Spanish Harlem Orchestra to play in jazz music festivals and jazz venues around the world. We’ve been at the Jazz Alley before, and we have played the Blue Note in New York, Yoshi’s in the Bay Area, and others. It’s common for the Spanish Harlem Orchestra because of the excellent musical standard established not just by me but by all the musicians in the Spanish Harlem Orchestra and evidenced by the 4 Grammy nominations and 2 Grammy Awards that we’ve won.

We’ve set a standard that has taken us all over the world, to places such as Russia, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, Hong Kong, and just about every country in Europe. People that are familiar with the band, know what the band is all about, and we’ve developed a fan base along the way. We performed last week at the Cleveland Jazz Festival and I can tell you that the audience was on its feet most of the show…which is pretty cool!

LMC: Let’s go back in time. What motivated you guys to get together and form the Spanish Harlem Orchestra?

Oscar Hernandez with singer Marcos Bermudez
Oscar Hernandez with singer Marcos Bermudez with Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s 2nd Grammy award.

Oscar Hernandez: The truth of that story is that it wasn’t my idea at all. It was a gentleman by the name of Aaron Luis Levinson that came to me 13 years ago (2000). He’s a DJ, music fan, and a record producer, and he called me and said he had a deal to produce a record of a certain concept for Warner Brothers. He wanted me to musically produce the record, we worked on the concept, I chose the musicians, I chose the singers, the arrangers, including myself, we went into the studio and recorded it.

To make a long story short, Warner Brothers dropped the project, and it was in the can for 1 1/2 years, and I had lost hope for the project. He then sold it to an independent record label called Rope a Dope Records, it was released, it received a Grammy nomination and it’s been history since then! To me it’s been a blessing to let me do what I want to do, and here we are 12 years later with 4 records, 4 Grammy nominations and 2 Grammy awards…it has been an incredible ride!

LMC: How have you’ve been able to keep the Spanish Harlem Orchestra together for 12 years?

Oscar Hernandez: For us it’s no secret. We’ve been playing music of excellence. For me I play music that comes from the heart, Salsa music that I learned to play at the hands of many incredible masters. I’m really proud to say that I’ve performed with Machito, with Tito Puente, with Celia Cruz, with Ruben Blades, with Ray Barretto, and many other musicians that I feel honored to have played and recorded with. So to me it’s an opportunity to keep that Salsa music alive and to keep it on the pedestal that it merits to be on in terms of the integrity and the quality of it.

I think the Spanish Harlem Orchestra…, we came along at the right time because people had forgotten what this (Salsa) music sounded like. Fifteen years before we came around what was popular was pop-Salsa or commercial Salsa; and that music while some of it is good and be popped on the radio a lot, some of it is not good because its lacking of what this music really is, of the tradition and legacy of where this music comes from. So for me and my musicians we are deep in that tradition and we are proud to uphold what that legacy is and keep the essence of what that (Salsa) music alive and well.

LMC: Yes, you guys were one of the first to bring this old music sound back and now it’s proliferating. Now there are more groups coming up with this sound, like La Excelencia from New York, from where you are from, Marlow Rosado, who just won a Grammy this year in that category, and on the other side of the world there is Tromboranga in Spain, so there a few bands coming up with this “Salsa dura” concept and apparently doing pretty well..

Oscar Hernandez playing Latin music at the piano.
Oscar Hernandez was part of “Asi Se Compone un Son”, Ismael Miranda’s 1st solo album.

Oscar Hernandez: Well, to all the musicians that have followed on our footsteps I salute them and thank them for taking on the battle to keep Salsa music on the pedestal it merits to be on. And again, on playing this (Salsa) music on a Performance Art Center, you were talking of the Jazz Alley, this is dance music but it’s more than dance music.

People can sit there and enjoy it. As evidence of what I was just saying, we played in Houston and Cleveland this past weekend. Both were concerts, not dances. Not that I mind if people get up and dance because I know music moves you in that way. But we are performing in a Performing Arts Center where people can see the excellence of the music, the excellence of the band, of the 3 vocalists, of the percussion section, of the horn section, and you are treated to 13 musicians that we will feature them during the course of the whole evening.

Additionally, I can say without a doubt that the Spanish Harlem Orchestra is one of the best ensembles of any type of music today.

To me that was missing, because pop-Salsa was about one thing, the singer. The singer was featured and he would sing the same thing every single night! You know, that’s not the way we learned the music. That’s certainly not the way I learned it back in the 70’s when I started as a young musician. I’m clear on the concept. I’m clear on what makes Salsa music sound the way we make it sound and I love it.

LMC: How do you compare your “Salsa dura”, the Salsa music the Spanish Harlem Orchestra plays today to the Salsa music of the 70s?

Oscar Hernandez: As I said, people had forgotten what this music really sounded like. When I listen to all those recordings I did with all those great bands…, with Ismael Miranda, with Conjunto Libre, with Ray Barretto, with Pete El Conde, etc, there is a certain thread that connects that Salsa music to the music we do today with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra.

Today our music is more modern because we are talking about 30-40 years since that time; there are different perspectives towards today’s sound, the technology has changed…but as far as technology I can tell you that the Spanish Harlem Orchestra records the old-fashion way; we record “live”.

Now-a-day they record one musician at a time, sometimes 2 or 3, and to me there’s a difference. Thank God I can tell you that people hear it. Not everybody can hear it, not everybody is tuned to it, not everybody cares, but those people who do care and become connoisseurs of what the music is, they can tell. And those are the people that I’m appealing to.

Oscar Hernandez with Ruben Blades and Seis del Solar.
Oscar Hernandez with Ruben Blades’ Seis del Solar

To me it’s ironic that in a time were Salsa dances have become so popular all over the world, Salsa music has been on the decline. So it’s a contradiction. I think the Salsa dances sometimes it trivializes the actual Salsa music. That’s one thing I’m against!

That’s why I prefer to play in performing art centers and places like the Jazz Alley were people are sitting down. I prefer to play at festivals, where I love people to dance, but that’s not the main focus of my music. It’s going to make people dance because the swing is hard and heavy, and that’s what good dance music does. But at the same time when you have dancers who don’t care who’s performing live…they have no use for us, well I have no use for them in that regards.

I want people to be educated, I want people to understand the difference. The fact that they are listening to musicians who have a great history of playing with a lot of great people, who are excellent at their craft and are some of the best musicians. And I don’t mean just us, whether it be Eddie Palmieri or whether it be El Gran Combo or it be Sonora Ponceña….

I’ll tell you a brief story…one year I was here at the LA Salsa Congress and I was walking to the back, and Sonora Ponceña was at the stage playing, which is one of my favorite bands, and I hear 2 guys saying…’mira, who’s playing’…’I don’t know, some band’…so I scratched my head because that’s part of the triviality that exists towards Salsa music that I really don’t care for. I’m really proud of what we do.

LMC: You were saying you want people to be educated (about Salsa music), do you guys try to educate during your performances?

Oscar Hernandez: A picture is worth a thousand words. When people capture the essence of the whole performance, they come away with a sense of “wow, there’s something different about this music”, and I’m only going from what people tell me at the end of the show when I’m signing CDs or through Facebook or email. I try to always impart a little bit of knowledge.

One of the things we’ve done is to feature a “bolero” as part of our show, and explain to people the importance of that genre in the development of Latino culture, in particular of the Puerto Rican culture in the city of New York. For me, for people to not have a sense of what this music is…how can that be? So for me that’s part of educating the audience about the culture.

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Hector: I hope you enjoyed the first part of my conversation with Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s musical director, the maestro Oscar Hernandez. On the 2nd part of our conversation we discuss the music business and how bands work these days compared to yesteryear, the role and dynamics of the CD (recording), we talk about Carlos Cascante, one of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s singers who will perform in the Bellevue Jazz Fest this year with his own band, and talk about the new Salsa music CD for the Spanish Harlem Orchestra (when it’s coming). So stay tune for part 2 of our conversation!

1 Comment
  1. tromboranga says

    Spanish Harlem Orchestra is great inspiration for musicians today ! Thanks Oscar for such great albums and concerts ! and thanks to all the guys at SHO !

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