Oscar Hernández is considered the most gifted pianist and arranger to come of age during New York’s golden age of salsa. His list of accolades is extensive. In addition to being Rubén Blades’ pianist, arranger and musical director, the South Bronx native has enjoyed a prolific career recording and performing with the definitive stars of Latin music. Hernández was selected by pop-rock icon Paul Simon to arrange and produce the music for Simon’s debut Broadway musical, The Capeman. Hernández’s most recent project, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra (SHO), won a 2005 Grammy Award for Best Salsa/Merengue Album for their Libertad Records release Across 110th Street: Spanish Harlem Orchestra Featuring Ruben Bládes. And finally-lest we forget-Hernández has left an indelible stamp on an entire generation of American women with his theme song to Sex and the City.
Hernández invited Guernica to meet him at a recent sold-out SHO concert at the legendary Copacabana Club (yes, the very same one immortalized by Barry Manilow). The Guernica team arrived on the red carpet accompanied by the members of Justin King & The Apologies. Visiting from Seattle and fresh from inking a new deal with Epic Records, the boys were feeling celebratory and ready to learn some new salsa moves. We were ushered to our seats just in time to abandon them for the dance floor when, moments later, SHO opened their first high-energy set. An hour and several crushed toes later, Guernica followed Oscar through the maze of backstage hallways to a semi-private room where we flushed out a gaggle of showgirls and had a lovely, rambling chat about all things salsa.
[Interviewed by Taya Mueller; Photographed by Bram Muller]
Guernica: The immigration experience has come to play a tremendous role in Puerto Rican culture, to the extent that Puerto Rican culture is really inseparable from “Nuyorican” culture, and most would agree that Puerto Rican music is as much a product of New York City as of the island itself. You grew up in the South Bronx in a scene that was nurturing the nascent New York Salsa sound-this new hybrid of Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican influences. Tell us about some of your early musical influences-what it was like to be in that particular place at that particular time?
Oscar Hernández: Well, this music started in the ’40s and ’50s, but I grew up in the hood in its heyday, which was the ’60s. I was the youngest of eleven kids and all my brothers and sisters were partying to the music of the day, which was Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez, Machito, Ray Barreto, Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colon, the whole boogaloo movement. I got to sneak into the summer clubs when I was like, sixteen, and see people like Barreto, Palmieri, Richie Ray, Colon and Héctor Lavoe. It was the music that urban Latinos were listening to-this was the music that they were partying to. All the social events, all the parties, all the clubs… we’d be hearing the music blasting from the windows and in the streets, and I was always hooked on that sound.
G: How did you transition from being a fan to becoming a performer?
Hernández: I started playing trumpet in the boys’ club when I was about twelve, but I wasn’t any good! When I first started, the teacher said “oh, this kid’s gonna be good,” but after about a year, I still didn’t have the mouth for it. Some people have the natural ability for that instrument and I just didn’t. But that’s fine, cause then at about the age of fourteen, my brother was a superintendent where I lived and they gave him a piano, so he had a basement room that he hooked up like a clubhouse. I started messing around with this old upright and we used to jam with local neighborhood musicians. We had a few guys who knew a few little things on the piano that they taught me and I picked up the rest on my own.
G: And what was the turning point from jamming in your brother’s basement to becoming a working musician?
Hernández: By the time I was sixteen, I started playing formally with a couple of young bands-what they called “kiddie bands” in the day-with guys who were my age, maybe a little older. I got my first really big gig when I was about eighteen playing with Ismael Miranda-he was like the Marc Anthony of his day and had all the women going crazy for him. He was a great singer. I was very fortunate, cause at that time we were working five, six, seven days a week and they were all musicians who were better than I was: Nicky Marrero, Joe Santiago, Nelson Gonzalez. I was fortunate to play at an early age with musicians who were better than me-that was my training ground.
G: Is there anybody in particular who stands out as a great teacher?
Hernández: The way it works in this music is that you start off arranging for the band leaders you work with. I really got a lot of great experience when I started working with Ray Barreto. We did kind of a landmark album for the time called Reconstruction. Ray was always advanced in terms of his approach to the music, incorporating jazz elements and jazz harmonies and modern-style arrangements. Now, Ray grew up during the bebop era, so he loved Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie-during the Blue Note days, Ray played on a lot of those records as a percussionist. So here was this innovator who gave me the opportunity to start arranging, which was a great opportunity. Around that time, I also got to play with people like Peter Come Rodriguez, Conjunto Libre and Grupo Folklorico Experimental de Argentina-they just did two historical albums and that was it-kind of an all-star jam band.
G: What role did your classical music training play in your success?
Hernández: Well, growing up poor in the South Bronx with a big family, college was never mentioned in my house. It wasn’t until later that I kind of felt like I should be doing something more with my life. I was kind of scared to go to college, but I finally did-I was the first one in the family. I got a degree in music and I started studying more on my own, too. When I went to school, I used to take two to three weeks off at a time to go tour Europe. The professors were pretty lenient so long as I did the work-which I did-cause they knew I was working professionally and making money. I would say it gives you the credibility that you know what you’re doing on a legit level when you’re from the street. But there’s nothing like experience, in anything you do. It runs the gamut, musicians who were self-taught, musicians who learned by ear, musicians who were really schooled. I had the opportunity to play with all of them and I think it’s all good. Believe it or not, I started studying again recently with a classical teacher cause I want to go back to kind of refining my technique. There are certain things I always wanted to do that I never got around to-there’s always a lot to learn.
G: You’ve worked with the best in the business. How did Spanish Harlem Orchestra come about?
Hernández: I wish I could take credit for that, but it was strictly coincidence. I’m a firm believer that things happen for a reason and sometimes the Divine One puts things in your path. In my case, a producer came up to me and said, “look, I have a concept album that I sold to Atlantic Records and I’d like you to produce it.” So we spoke, and it became this group. It’s funny because we did the first record and Warner Brothers dropped it. It sat on the shelf for over a year.
G: The SHO album Across 110th Street beat out some pretty heavy hitters to take the 2005 Grammy for Best Salsa Album-do you think this is an indication that the traditional salsa sound is enjoying a renaissance?
Hernández: Well, I wish that was the case, but I think the new generation doesn’t have the same appreciation for the music that we had back in the ’70s. It’s a different era. People are so saturated, so bombarded with so much stuff from the media that they can’t focus on anything. The development of the Latino culture in the ’60s and ’70s was this sense of identity that people were gravitating to-and a large part of that was the music. That was very important then, but it’s non-existent now. I mean, it still exists somewhat, but certainly not on the level it existed thirty years ago.
When you go see one of the top singers nowadays, it’s basically all about him. It’s all about him. You don’t see anybody else featured in the band. With SHO, everybody gets featured.
G: What do you think has replaced the music in the shaping of Latino youth culture?
Hernández: They’re just listening to other stuff. We’ve had success with Spanish Harlem Orchestra across the board because people are recognizing that we are the legit heirs to the throne of what this music is about. We’ve touched a nerve-we’re capturing the essence of what this music should be. But people have forgotten their way over the last ten to twelve years. They’re listening to pop salsa-a lot of merengue, or now reggaeton-and pop salsa is fine, it has some elements obviously, but it doesn’t have the true essence of what this music is.
G: A lot of the new salsa music is heavy on post-production and electronic elements. Why does SHO continue to cultivate the more traditional, organic live experience with live musicians?
Hernández: With SHO, we record live with excellent musicians and we’ve developed the camaraderie-a chemistry-that’s been lost with most modern groups. You mention a good word, organic. The music that you hear nowadays on the radio is mass-produced. It’s recorded with click tracks and each instrument is layered-that’s not what this music is about. There’s a certain rawness to the sound that’s lost. With a click track, it’s very sterile. There are musicians who know how to play with the click track and they can fabricate it so it sounds good and it swings, but still… when you go see one of the top singers nowadays, it’s basically all about him. It’s all about him. You don’t see anybody else featured in the band. With SHO, everybody gets featured. You see a flute solo, you see a percussion solo, you see a piano solo, you see horns soloing throughout the course of the evening besides the three singers up front and the chemistry that they have.
G: Another big difference is that your generation had no choice but to go to the dance halls to discover their music, whereas today’s youth are largely marketed to. Given the barometer of the current industry, why does SHO continue to record on an independent label-and how will this decision shape your future?
Hernández: Well, getting back to a point you made, we won the Grammy without any commercial airplay. And I can’t tell you how satisfying it is. We beat out Marc Anthony who’s on Sony, and Sony’s pumping out the big bucks. You hear him twenty, twenty-five times a day on La Mega, but you don’t hear our record. So obviously, somebody’s listening to what we’re doing. I think it’s kind of an underground thing, one of those things that happens through word of mouth. I know it’s not conventional the way we’ve gone about it. But we’ve been to Europe twelve times in four years. We’ve been to Japan, we’ve been to Hong Kong. There are salsa fans everywhere you go. There are a lot of people who love this music and understand what I’m talking about, that we bring a different element. Here, they still follow the other people, but they also know that this is something kind of unique and special, and then when they hear it live, they go, “oh, wow these guys are really good.”
G: How does it feel to represent this music abroad?
Hernández: It feels good because sometimes I feel that we’re kind of taken for granted here on our own home turf. People marvel at what we’re doing in other countries. They really appreciate the music. Sometimes I don’t feel we get the support of our own people-our own promoters-here. Thank god that we’ve had enough work internationally and in other venues. We’re doing Arizona State University, CalState University, University of Massachusetts-performing arts centers all over the United States. These are venues that normal salsa bands don’t go to, so we’ve clearly transcended a certain barrier, which is my mission.
I mean, not only are we playing kick-ass music, but there’s definitely a special thing about the name, “Spanish Harlem Orchestra.” It’s not a bunch of flyweights who took on this name; we’re the real deal, and Spanish Harlem has real value in terms of the cultural development of Latinos in New York and in the United States.
G: And whom do you feel you represent when you travel abroad?
Hernández: I don’t feel like I have to carry a banner for anybody, I just love the music, number one. I mean, it’s nice that what we’re doing goes beyond the music. That’s special, but it’s gravy on top of it, the icing on the cake. I mean, not only are we playing kick-ass music, but there’s definitely a special thing about the name, “Spanish Harlem Orchestra.” It’s not a bunch of flyweights who took on this name; we’re the real deal, and Spanish Harlem has real value in terms of the cultural development of Latinos in New York and in the United States.
G: What would you say are some of the big changes in Spanish Harlem-good and bad-since you grew up?
Hernández: Well, one of the things about Giuliani is that he was part fascist, but I got to say he cleaned up a lot of the bullshit. Yes, he was repressive. I have friends who tell me, “man you don’t understand how repressive he was unless you were a black person during his administration,” and I can relate. But I also can relate that I used to walk down the street and see junkies and pimps all over. It used to be ridiculous, just like the Tenderloin in San Francisco-I was just there and that’s ridiculous, man. That whole area is ridiculous. And things are still really bad in the South Bronx. It’s really unfortunate. I think society as a whole needs to try to balance the playing field a bit. Those kids brought up in the inner city don’t have the same advantages, so who are the people ripping people off and destroying things? Those are those people who are uneducated and didn’t have any opportunity. One of the problems endemic to this great country we’re living in is that everything comes down to money, and that’s some sad shit, man. It really is. Cause it compromises everything across the board-same is true in the music biz. We need to take a look at ourselves and really try to see how we can help, and education is the key. We got to find a way to educate those kids, give them the self-esteem that they need, give them opportunities to be able to do well.
G: How do you feel about artists who take advantage of their position to address some of these things publicly? Do you ever feel drawn to communicate politically with your audiences?
Hernández: I do try to take advantage in my own little way when I’m speaking to an audience. We played a big public festival in Baltimore a few days ago with a lot of Latinos there and I told them basically-in Spanish-“look, you guys gotta come out and support these events.” As Latinos it’s really important, not to support us but to support these events. Period. Cause if not, we’re not going to be counted, we’re not going to be factored into anything that happens. But you know… I’m not a politician.
G: Before we let you get to your second set, I wonder if you would just share your feelings about the growing divide between salsa music and salsa dance. Time was, you couldn’t differentiate the two-if there was salsa music playing, people were dancing. But it seems that while the current generation is supporting the music, the dance form seems to be dropping off. Why do you think that is, and what can be done to reverse the trend?
Hernández: I love this music cause the dynamics of what makes it happen are so incredible. Now, in its purest form, it’s dance music and we want people to be moved by it. But as a musician, I like to think that people could also enjoy the aesthetic of just listening to a band-the arrangements, the solos, the percussion. The thing that salsa dancers across the world need to do is educate themselves more, because to me it seems they don’t know the difference between a d.j. and a live band, which makes me scratch my head. When I started, if we played a gig at the Corazon, as soon as we got up on stage, there would be a whole crowd in front of us waiting, just checking us out and appreciating the music. The salsa dancers now love the music, but they’re kind of apathetic towards what makes it happen and the effort it takes the musicians to make it happen-the artistry. I feel very strongly that they need to educate themselves and learn more. But that’s part of the problem in society today, like I said earlier. We’re bombarded with so much. Everybody’s distracted. Nobody can just sit down and concentrate and listen to something for a while.
If you would like to concentrate and listen to something for a while, please visit Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s official website at spanishharlemorchestra.com for upcoming domestic and international tour dates in your area. Unlike other Grammy winners, SHO still indulges the occasional audience request.
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