In one sense, the roots of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra go back to the Latin dance clubs of the 1960s and 1970s, where sweaty, packed dancefloors swirled like kaleidoscopes. But in truth, the band started in the basement of a South Bronx apartment building with a teenaged boy tentatively plinking out notes on a hand-me-down old piano.
In a recent interview, Oscar Hernández — leader of the Orchestra, which brings its hard-swinging rhythms to the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway, Sept 15 — recalled that one of his nine siblings became their building’s super and that someone gave the brother an unwanted upright piano. The older brother put the old Starr piano and a squishy vinyl kitchen chair in the basement and Oscar began to teach himself how to play. It wasn’t long before he found his way to reproducing the ever-present salsa of the day.
“I would see my older brother and sisters getting ready to go dancing on the weekends,” Hernández said, “and hear the music from every other window and every other doorway.”
Hernández taught himself well enough to play with local bands, and by 18 was performing several nights a week with salsa star Ismael Miranda and going home to his own apartment in his own car.
“I look back and I go like, ‘Wow, I took all that for granted,’ ” he said of his early successes. “I think I was too scared. I had a lot of insecurities, a lot of doubts, but I kept following the path that was put in front of me.”
Over the next few years, Hernández played and learned from the best: Celia Cruz, Pete “El Conde” Rodríguez, Ray Barretto. He went on to play with even more — Paul Simon, Rubén Blades, Tito Puente, Julio Iglesias.
“The education I got as a teenager and in my early 20s,” Hernández said, “playing with the people that I got to play with … you couldn’t pay for in the best university.
“I was very fortunate to play with a lot of pretty brilliant people and be brought up at a time when there was so much music happening in the city of New York. I was part of the cultural revolution of Latinos that was happening in New York City at the time and music was a big part of that … I couldn’t have gotten a better start. And then you know, from there, it just went on and on.”
After playing with top musicians for years, Hernandez was approached by Aaron Levinson, a record producer and DJ who was looking to create an album for Warner Bros. Records of classic salsa. Levinson even had a name picked out: The Spanish Harlem Orchestra. Hernandez spearheaded the project, but it ended up being shelved by the record company. Eventually they found a home on a smaller label, Ropeadope, and the once-discarded album, Un Gran Día en el Barrio, got a Grammy nomination for Best Salsa Album in 2002.
While Levinson initiated the project, Hernández said, “In reality, it was all meant for me. It was like God came down and knocked me on the head and said, ‘Hey stupid, wake up. This is what you’re supposed to be doing’ … (Levinson) created something that was going to be a vehicle for the rest of my life.”
Twenty years and three Grammy wins later, the Orchestra is a mainstay on the concert circuit, even though its “salsa dura” (or “hard salsa”) is not heard much on the big Latin radio stations. But it has a devoted following worldwide, and recently played for crowds of 10,000 in both Mexico and Korea.
The Spanish Harlem Orchestra plays salsa but also delves into Latin jazz, which has no lyrics and highlights the playing of its instrumentalists. “We got guys who are well-versed in both and understand the tradition of salsa,” Hernández said, “but we’ve all had our ear to the ground in the jazz scene forever.”
Because salsa is music for getting people up and dancing and the Orchestra often plays concert halls filled with seats, there is a natural tension about how people should enjoy the show. Hernández said salsa “is all about the swing,” but hopes audiences will give the music a good listen.
“I totally get it,” he said. “At its core, it’s dance music. I understand that, but dance sometimes trivializes the art form and I don’t want to be trivialized in any way. It’s a kind of funny position that we’re put in.
“I would like to reach a happy medium where people do want to get up and dance because the music is driving you that way. But at the same time, you’re appreciating a high level of musicianship and you can sit in that seat and just go, ‘Wow, I thoroughly enjoyed this concert from a sitting-down, listening perspective.’ ”
Though many of the salsa greats he learned from are now gone, Hernandez said, “We’re doing it our own way with different songs, different arrangements, but that’s what we’re taking a page from and that’s what I grew up with in the ’70s … It was about who’s gonna kick whose ass when we got to a club.
“My mission is to maintain the legacy and the history of this music and put it on the pedestal it merits to be on, and to represent the best of my culture.”
The Spanish Harlem Orchestra will perform at the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway, Sept. 15 at 8 p.m.; visit ucpac.org.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of any amount to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.