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Spanish Harlem Orchestra
By Mario Oña

Published November 30, 2007

In 2000, salsa music reclaimed New York. Its conquistador was the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. Although there were plenty of salsa artists around in the ’80s and ’90s in the city that never stops dancing, the music seemed to lack the authenticity of the ’60s and ’70s—considered the genre’s golden era. And it’s true that SHO hasn’t brought back the block parties made famous by Fania, the Sun Records of salsa, nor has the group resurrected the once majestic Palladium Ballroom on Broadway where Tito Puente tore up the timbales and Celia Cruz danced and sang her way into the history books. The 13- piece orchestra has, however, erupted with a vintage salsa sound that could sit comfortably alongside Fania’s catalog. They’ve also dropped a new song aptly titled “En El Tiempo Del Palladium” (“During The Time Of The Palladium”). And as the saying goes, “recordar es vivir”: to remember is to live.

SHO isn’t thriving on nostalgia alone, either. Their first two albums, 2002’s Un Gran Día En El Barrio and 2004’s Across 110th Street, not only enjoyed universal appeal, permitting them to tour from Hong Kong to Istanbul, but were also critically acclaimed. Barrio received a Latin Grammy nod and won Latin Billboard’s “Salsa Album Of The Year” award, while Across actually picked up the Latin Grammy for “Best Salsa Album.” Remarkably, their new release, United We Swing, looks to up the ante.

Despite his humility and constant use of “we” in discussing his orchestra, there’s one man behind the success of SHO: bandleader, arranger, producer, composer, music director and master pianist Oscar Hernández. The self-proclaimed traditionalist who only listens to jazz, Latin and classical music approaches his profession the same way that you’d hope your brain surgeon would. He eats, sleeps and dreams his craft. Continually perfecting his skills since he started banging the keys in the basement of his parents’ Bronx apartment building at the age of 14, now he’s worked with the greatest musicians around. His resumé of collaborations is a virtual who’s who of salseros: Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Ray Barretto, Ismael Miranda, Oscar D’León, and Johnny Pacheco, just to name a few. He’s produced such heavyweights as Willie Colón and the Panamanian salsa man-turned minister of tourism, Rubén Blades. Hernández, who was also Blades’ music director for 13 years, asked him to return the favor and sing on Across, which Blades did. Hernández is immersed in his genre, and the success of SHO’s purist sound is his vindication.

“At this point in my life, I’m pretty clear on what I want and what needs to be done,” he asserts. “I’ve worked with a lot of great people. I’ve been blessed. I feel very fortunate and I thank God every day.” He then adds, “I’d like to think that everybody [in the band] has the freedom to suggest whatever they like.” He points out that the three singers—Marco Bermúdez, Ray De La Paz and Willie Tórres—each have a song on United, and that percussionist Luisito Quintero was brought on at the behest of two band members, but concedes, “Inevitably there has to be some control. At some point you have to say, ‘This is what I want.’”

Hernández dismisses the notion that SHO makes a concerted effort to sound vintage. “We just do the music the way we want to do it. We don’t think, ‘Oh, we need to create this or we need to sound like that.’” He attributes their sound to having “top-notch arrangers that know the essence of the music that’s been lost for the last 15 years.”

In talking with Hernández, it becomes apparent that SHO’s mission is to restore the forgotten or neglected “salsa dura” (“hard salsa”) to what he views as its rightful dominant role. The mission is a self-imposed responsibility he tackles with the “utmost integrity.”

“I make no bones about it,” he explains wryly. “At this point in my life, I’m not taking a backseat to anybody. And t

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