Spanish Harlem Orchestra and its beginnings
Spanish Harlem Orchestra is for many one of the best Latin jazz and salsa bands in the world due to its long career, impressive relevance and numerous awards throughout its 19 years of existence. This Latin music orchestra based in the United States was created by producer Aaron Levinson and producer, composer and arranger Oscar Hernandez, who gave birth to a legendary group, which was Grammy winning twice and whose style has differentiated it from many others of its kind.
It all started with a call from Levinson to Hernandez to offer him the opportunity to join an ambitious project he had in mind, which consisted of the creation of a Latin jazz orchestra with a very peculiar sound and style. The producer could not resist such a proposal, so he agreed to lend his talent to the nascent initiative. This is how they debuted their first album Un Gran Día en el Barrio in 2002, thanks to which they received their first Grammy nomination for Best Salsa Album. After their first singles, the new group began to garner major success and to offer great performances all over the world.
One of the main objectives of the members of the band is to set for themselves is to keep salsa dura alive in order to be lasting and to reach as many lovers of good music as possible. This is how the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, or SHO as its fans affectionately call it, has managed to preserve the best of traditional salsa, but from a fresh and innovative perspective.
Its centerpiece Oscar Hernandez
Its most famous member Oscar Hernandez got his taste for music in the vicinity of Harlem’s Latin Quarter, where he spent his early childhood that would mark his professional future. As a young boy of 12, he became a trumpet player, but it would not be long before he decided to switch to the piano. He spent much of his adolescence playing with many Latin Jazz artists of the time. One of those great stars with whom Hernández had the opportunity to explore his talents was Rubén Blades, for whom he worked as a producer, arranger and pianist.
In the 90’s, the musician produced the album Dance City, for which he received good reviews in the New York Times and was called by singer and composer Paul Simon for his Broadway show.
Today, we are fortunate to have the pleasant presence of Oscar Hernádez to tell us about his beginnings and the path he had to take to join the project for which he is best known today by many of his fans, Spanish Harlem Orchestra
Mr. Hernandez, reading your story, we noticed that Spanish Harlem started with a call from Aaron Levinson in 2000, could you tell us a little about that?
Aaron Levinson is the producer. I did not know him. I have to make it clear that he is not a musician, but a DJ with a lot of connections and was called to make a record with the Warner Bross label with a specific concept. They thought he was the right person for that. He called me to help him with the musical part. Everything related Spanish Harlem Orchestra I owe to him because that is how I joined the project. That was what had to happen in terms of my fate. That is how God told me to wake up and understand that this was what I had to do. Until such time, I had only been a producer, arranger and pianist, so Levinson came to me and I accepted. We talked about the tracks and he picked some that I did not want to do. To make a long story short, we recorded the album, but Warnes Bross said they did not want to release it, so they gave it back to Aaron. A year and a half later, he sold it to a small company whose owners were friends of his and it was nominated for a Grammy. Since then, I started with the orchestra in 2002. The orchestra is almost 20 years and has been a great blessing for me. It was intended that he called me to put my personal stamp on that record with my brain and my heart, so I could create all the music that I have made these 20 years. Aside from that, we have gotten incredible reviews all over the world and won three Grammys. People know how good the orchestra is and how good the concepts we have recorded are because it is all documented. Listen to any of the albums and you will immediately note our quality, integrity, professionalism and musical concept. Obviously, I have very good musicians helping me, but final decisions start and end with me.
After you decided to carry out the project, how did you combine what you already had with Spanish Harlem Orchestra?
It was a moment in time that things were changing. I did not have anything stable at that time, as I had just finished working with Paul Simon in a stage play which was quite a large process. I was freelancing, so I was working for whoever called me. The perfect time came when I had the chance to create the orchestra and it was not easy because I had no ambitions for a career as a bandleader. It was not something I wanted to do, but I had to learn a lot of things after I became one like dealing with people, with musicians and with situations that were not easy. During that process, I had to get rid of a lot of people because I realized that I had good intentions, but that is not enough. You have to have willpower and be clear about the concept musically and in terms of business. I always try to deal with musicians in the best way because I was one before anything else. I try to be transparent and understand all situations, but there are also selfish people who want to enjoy all the advantages for themselves and I am not in that plan. My plan is to look for what is in the best interest of all of us as a group. At my age, I do not have time for anything but high quality and professionalism. I lasted seven years with Ray Barreto and recorded six albums. I lasted 12 years with Rubén Blades and we also recorded six or seven albums. What do I say? I have already worked with many people like Juan Luis Guerra, Paul Simon and many others who have left an important mark on me as a musician and as a director.
What do you consider to be the most valuable thing you have learned from the artists you have worked with?
I think all these people have love for music, which is the most important thing. I remember my times with Barreto, who listened to all the mixes we made and drove musicians crazy in search of perfection. Like Rubén Blades, who was a transparent person and always wanted to do his best as a musician. It is not just one thing I have learned, but several because they are all important. I believe that love, professionalism and willingness to work with musicians. I remember that Rubén was the bandleader, but he always considered our views as musicians. I was even the arranger and my musical value was respected from the beginning. I respect my musicians very much and I give them all the value they deserve.
You told me earlier that you were on tour in New York. Could you tell us how it went? How did the audience respond? How did it feel to be back on stage after such a long time?
It was incredible. Our first concert with the orchestra was in the very heart of of New York City on 42nd Street in Manhattan. There is a place called Brian Park and there were about 10,000 people there, as the event was free to the public. It filmed live and virtually streamed. I mentioned to the audience that this was the first time we played live and that we had only one rehearsal the day before. It was an amazing experience because I felt that musicians were in the best position to make a first-rate performance and they did. The audience warmly and gratefully applauded. When you do something all your life and suddenly it stops for a year and a half, you realize many things.
What other events are you going to do? Are you planning on touring outside the United States?
We are scheduled to have a tour in June in Europe, but it remains to be seen what will because COVID is still present and countries are evaluating how things are going to go in the next few months to specify dates and cities. In December, we will have four shows, two in Santa Fe, one in Albuquerque (California) and one in Costa Mesa (California). We are no longer touring as such, we are doing dates. It had been years since we have toured like we used to. The new album is done and sounds amazing. Last week, we were in New York finishing the vocals with the three singers, who are some of the best and it was a pleasure for me to share with them. They are clear that they have to do their part in what is going to be another great record.
Questions from a lifelong admirer of Oscar Hernandez
Augusto Felibertt, international director at International Salsa Magazine, professional DJ and collector, asked Oscar Hernandez some very interesting questions to learn more about his past as a musician.
I want to know your feeling about your time with Grupo Libre de Manny Oquendo and Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino.
Associating with Andy and Jerry Gonzalez was an incredible experience for me as a young musician in New York. They were an important part of my development. They were a little older than me, but I remember Andy came up tome and presented himself when I was playing with Ismael Miranda in a club. He told me it was nice to meet me and that we sounded great. Since then, we became friends and he invited me to his house. When I arrived, it turned out he lived with Jerry in an apartment below his father’s and had an incredible record collection. We would spend many hours listening to music I had never heard and arguing about musicians. We would debate about who was the most important, who else we liked. It was a very nice time from which Conjunto Libre de Manny Oquendo emerged. I was the founding pianist of the group that recorded the first three albums. The image of Grupo Folklorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino also emerged. That group composed of of Andy, Jerry and René López became larger with other musicians who joined later such as Alfredo Chocolate Armenteros, Virgilio Martí, Heny Álvarez, Willie García, Milton Cardona, among others. There were so many musicians that the image of what a jam was (a spontaneous concert in which an artist or group performs before a small group of spectators) was expanded.
Ray Barreto’s album Reconstrucción, a musical jewel for the salseros of the world. I want to know about your experience on that recording.
Reconstrucción was one of the most important recordings of that time because the elements that Rey used to design the concept resulted in something incredible. I am very proud of that record with more than 40 years old. I was 25 years old when we made it and it went down in history. I am very grateful to Ray Barreto because he gave me the opportunity to work as a pianist and arranger on that recording. Even today, many musicians tell me that they listened to that album every day and were inspired by it.
I would like to know about your time with Carabalí.
Carabalí was the group of Raúl Primo Alomar, who was a conguero, and percussionist Rey Colón, who was a bongo player. They wanted to make a septet and called me to join as a producer. He was the producer of the two albums. I am very proud of that experience because I can be anywhere in the world and people still call me Carabalí wherever I go. Aris Martinez, the singer of the group, was about 20 years old at the time and I kept correcting him in the studio all the time. Nowadays I listen to him and he sings very well. However, it got to the point where we had a disagreement, so I left the group and wished them luck.
You recorded an album entitled Como Nunca with Orlando Watussi, could you tell me a little about it?
I do not remember much about the details, but Watussi has always been in the music business and has been considered one of the best singers. We don’t talk much, but he is a great person and a lifelong friend. That was a great opportunity for us and another example of how I have done my bit in the music scene with what I feel in my heart.
Link to Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s official website: https://www.spanishharlemorchestra.com/