Latino Music Interview: Oscar Hernandez Part 2


There are few people that can talk about the old days of Salsa music and how they compare to today like Oscar Hernandez.

Oscar was in the middle of the boom of Salsa music in New York when it exploded in the 70’s and today continues to win Grammy awards.

I hope you enjoyed the 1st part of my conversation with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s musical director. On part 1 we covered how the Spanish Harlem Orchestra came together, how they have been able to stay together for 12 years, why Oscar puts so much emphasis on the quality of the music. The 4 Grammy nominations and 2 Grammy Awards validate that quality. We also touch on the significance of the music as part of our Latino culture. Finally we couldn’t leave out talking about the irony that although Salsa Congresses are becoming more popular, Salsa music has been in a decline.

This part 2 of the conversation focuses on the the business side of music, where Oscar shares how musicians work these days, the music recording business, news about the Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s next album, and what Oscar has in his iPod. Let’s get to it!

Oscar Hernandez On the Latin Music Business

LMC: We were talking about Salsa music back in the 70’s and 80’s. Back then, when a musician played in a band, that was his only job. These days there is a lot of freelancing; bands get together to play a gig and once done, they disperse and everyone does other things. Can you explain why we had to go to that model in order to survive?

Oscar Hernandez: well…it’s a different generation and a different era completely. Back in those days we used to work, 4,5, 6, or 7 days a week. When I was with Ismael (Miranda) it was that way, when I was with (Conjunto) Libre it was that way, when I was with Pete El Conde it was that way. You could make a steady income and travel…. That’s why I stayed with Ismael for 2 years, I stayed with (Conjunto) Libre for 3 years, I stayed with (Ray) Barretto for 5 years, I stayed with Ruben (Blades) for 13 years, and in-between those I would do a few other things that would come up my way.

Oscar Hernandez in front of his Grammy awards.
Oscar Hernandez has won 2 Grammy Awards with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra

But now nobody is working on that consistent level. So you’re obligated to take as much work as possible to live…and you can’t compare anything today to the scene we had in back in those days in New York. We took it for granted all those years but now I look back and realize I was blessed to have been part of that scene, were I was thriving, I was surving and doing well on my own as an 18 year old.

That was part of the development of Latino culture in New York and music was such an important part of it. Music was very important in that city, especially to Latinos as a way of bonding, socializing, and recognizing our values and coming together as a community. That’s what we’re talking about, different eras and there were dynamics in those days that don’t exist today.

LMC: Another thing that changed was the role of the album. Back then good musicians could make some money out of the recordings. Now albums are more of a marketing tool than a source of income. A musician’s income is now mostly limited to live performances. Can you tell us a little about this change?

Oscar Hernandez: Unfortunately we had to reinvent ourselves. Yes, back then we were able to make a little money out of our recordings, but that has gone away with the growth of the internet and people being able to download for free many recordings, which is very unfortunate. But it’s a reality we’ve almost come to terms with and it’s a though one to swallow.

From my point of view I can tell you that I need money in order to be able to do a good recording; I don’t want to compromise the quality, because I like to pay my musicians well and I’m very demanding. So I need to pay them well and I like to use the best studios which costs money. So if you’re not making any money from that (albums), how do you justify it?

LMC: Have you thought of doing your independent record label?

Oscar Hernandez: Not really, but I may have to. Our last album, which won a Grammy, was “Viva la Tradicion” which I did with Concord Records. Concord came back to me about a month ago and said ‘we can give you X dollars for your next album’ which is a joke! I can’t make a good recording with X dollars!

Note: Oscar did tell me how much money Concord offered to pay for the recording, but I chose not to reveal that in respect to Oscar’s on-going negotiations with the record label.

The truth of the matter is I need more than X dollars to make a recording and ‘no me sale’ (it doesn’t come out of me) to make and give them a recording and for them to own it for X dollars.

LMC: A former bandmate of yours (with Ruben Blades’ Seis del Solar) Ralph Irizarry went to crowdfunding for his “Los Viejos de la Salsa” album. He did a Kickstarter project and got it done!

Oscar Hernandez with Ruben Blades and Seis del Solar.
Oscar Hernandez and Ralph Irizarry where bandmates on Seis del Solar

Oscar Hernandez: …and that’s a viable way, but I don’t know…I feel a little embarrassed, and perhaps I shouldn’t, about going that route. I may have to, and there is enough people that understand the parameters of what it takes to make a live recording on the level that we want to make it, which is not cheap as I said before. But I’m negotiating with it (the concept of crowdfunding) as we speak Hector, especially after winning a Grammy on our last recording and knowing I have on the table our next recording, which is as good as it gets as far as I’m concern in (Salsa) music.

LMC: Regarding crowdfunding…I see this like Ruben Blades said…’la vida te da y te quita, te quita y te da’. (life gives and takes, takes and gives – from the song ‘Maestra Vida’). On one end you loose the CD income, but on the other you get crowdfunding, which at least the younger generations embrace very naturally. They become real fans of bands and artists and don’t mind contributing to a project, and if a band cares about them, they care about the band!

Oscar Hernandez: Oh believe me, I’m not against it. I think it’s a great idea, because if you get 1,000 people contributing $20, which they can spend more than that in a week at Starbucks…it’s a very viable way for you to do a recording. And I may well cross that bridge, but at this point I’m still looking at other different possibilities, because I hate to bother people, I hate to involve other people; that’s just me.

But it may be the way to go! I may have to go to our fans and say ‘this is what it’s going to take to get our next recording out’, we need to raise X dollars in order to pay the musicians what I like to pay them, to pay the arrangers what I need to pay them, to use the best studios, and get it done at the level that I need to keep the quality at the highest level. Because to me that’s the most important thing. ‘Eso se queda’, that stays forever, and for me I don’t compromise myself, I don’t compromise the integrity of what I do or how I do it.

On the Spanish Harlem Orchestra Musicians and What Oscar Listens To

LMC: …and you have some of the best musicians around; you have Ray de la Paz (singer), you don’t have Jimmy Bosch anymore, but you have Reinaldo Jorge (trombone)…

Oscar Hernandez: No doubt, Spanish Harlem Orchestra has some of the best musicians. I’m happy to say the personnel of the band is pretty much the same personnel we’ve had the last 4 or 5 years. Except for Jimmy; we had to move our separate ways ’cause he was getting busy doing other things…and we moved on. I love him, he’s my brother and I wish him the best. Actually I wish this to every musician, let them do their own thing, let them be bandleaders and walk the road that I have to walk as a bandleader, which isn’t easy!

LMC: Well, Carlos Cascante, one of your singers, has his own band and will be performing at the Bellevue Jazz Festival (near Seattle).

Oscar Hernandez: Carlos has been part of our band for a little over 2 years and it’s kind of a funny story. He came to one of my music seminars in LA, and I thought ‘wow, he signs pretty good’, and he gave me a copy of his record and I actually loved the way he sounded. There was something about his singing that I liked a lot. Eventually I called him up and said I was going to make a change in the singers and I was going to give him an opportunity. He came, he put his voice on the songs and I’m really happy.

It’s been a learning experience for him, but he’s a team player, which is the other thing I needed, someone who understands the concept of the importance of being a team player because it’s a team. I tell everybody ‘leave your ego at the door’.

LMC: Who do you follow these days musically? Is there an artist that you are keeping an eye on? What’s in your iPod?

Oscar Hernandez: Most of what’s in my iPod is old music. Stuff I grew up listening to; from Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Machito, Ray Barretto, Cheo Feliciano, Arsenio (Rodriguez), Chapotín, Miguelito Cuñi, Arcaño…that’s a good part of what’s in my iPod.

As far as what I’m listening today…I always like to hear to what my contemporaries are doing, so I like to listen to what the Ponceña is doing, what El Gran Combo is doing, Victor Manuelle, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Jose Lugo as a really good projects out from Puerto Rico…there is a good friend of mine from Venezuela who lives in New York who has a group called ‘La Clave Secreta’ which are excellent musicians…and I always have my eyes on what comes out of Cuba.

I’m very particular with what I like. To me it has to be something that has to do with the essence of the root of our music. As we say in Spanish “la mata, algo que viene de la mata”.

On the Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s New Album

LMC: So when are we going to get the 5th Grammy nominated recording from the Spanish Harlem Orchestra?

Oscar Hernandez: (laughs) Well, we have all the music ready. I did all my arrangements, but I’m waiting for the last 2 arrangements to come in. We were planning to go to the studio June 29th and 30th. Then I get a call from Luisito Quintero, my timbalero, saying he has a tour with Chick Corea and won’t be able to make the dates. So it put a wrench into my plans ’cause I don’t want to use anybody else; and he calls me and says ‘Oscar por favor, no me dejes fuera’ (Oscar, please, don’t leave me out) (laughing) pleading with me…and I said ‘Ok Luisito, but you really hurt me on this one’.

So we are looking for other dates, and hopefully it will be soon. I feel good about the music, I feel good about what we have again, to put out another quality record. As far as what label we’re going to put it on…that’s the big surprise! Don’t be surprised with whatever happens, if I go the crowdfunding route. Hopefully not, but if that’s the way it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be!

LMC: Oscar, thanks for your time and sharing with us in Latino Music Cafe.

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