Interview with Latin Music legend Oscar Hernandez of Spanish Harlem Orchestra

BY: TARA ALATORRE –

PHOENIX – Recently the world renowned Spanish Harlem Orchestra performed at the Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) Music Theatre in North Phoenix for the first-time ever. The two-time Grammy winning, 13-musician ensemble plays authentic, New York-style Salsa and Latin Jazz. It is led by celebrated Latin music arranger and pianist, Oscar Hernández, who is a giant in the industry working with everyone from Tito Puente to Paul Simon.

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra (SHO) is a well-oiled machine, literally they do not miss a beat. The brass, percussions, rhythm and vocals are technically flawless, yet the band still performs with true heart and soul that captivates the audience, transporting them to the Golden Era of Latin music, the 1960’s in New York.

Whether you love Latin music or not, it was impossible to not appreciate the vibrant beats and musical talent that performed on MIM’s stage, which offered an amazing acoustical experience.

The band recently celebrated its 15th anniversary, and this April they released new studio album titled “Anniversary,” commemorating their milestone.

While SHO was in Phoenix, The Foothills Focus was granted an exclusive interview with music legend and SHO band leader Hernández on July 14, before he performed at the MIM. The following is our conversation with Hernandez.

Have you ever played at the MIM Music Theatre before?

Hernández: No, never. We’re really happy to be here, and I heard it was a really beautiful venue, and now that I’m here, it’s spectacular. They got it right. Architecturally, I mean, acoustically it seemed very live. The seating is beautiful. There is nothing else like it. I just took a really quick tour of the museum, and I was like, wow!

Can you tell the readers who are not familiar with your band about SHO?

We’re celebrating our 15th year Spanish Harlem Orchestra. We won Two Grammys and have been nominated four times. It’s one of the best ensembles we played almost every single major jazz festival, World Music Festival. We do a lot of performing art centers and I am really proud of what we’ve created in those 15. We’ve traveled all over the world from the Sydney Opera House, to Carnegie Hall, to Chicago Symphony Hall.

What’s a corner of the world where you have played where people might not necessarily think it embraces Latin music?

We played in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Not knowing what to expect, we walk into this club and they were 1,200 people there and they were like, I mean, just hanging on every single note and appreciative of who we were.

Tell me more about the 15-year anniversary album, what’s the significance for you, for the band and for SHO fans?

It’s a milestone. Fifteen years when this started, when Spanish Harlem Orchestra started, wasn’t even my idea. I call it divine intervention. There’s been certain things that have happened in my life that I can’t explain other than to say there’s somebody guiding me with things. So it was put in front of me 15 years ago kind of saying “Hello, this is what you need to be doing.”

Yeah, but I realize now, especially now, 15 years later that it was meant to be. I am really good at it. I’m really good as a band leader, I’m really clear on the concept, and I’m really clear on the vision. I understand the significance, significance of the music historically and culturally. It all stems from the Latino Cultural Revolution in New York that started in the fifties and sixties and seventies, which I was a part of as a young kid.

Tell me about your roots growing up in Harlem and how you got started in the music business?

My parents come from Puerto Rico, but I was born in New York City, so, as a young Latino and being from the hood in the South Bronx music kind of saved my life. That’s why I’m saying, divine intervention. Because when I was a 14, somebody gave us a piano. I would’ve never been able to afford a piano, God knows! But they gave me a piano and boom, it was like, oh wow!

Before you know it, I was playing with local neighborhood musicians, at 16 I started playing professionally, and at 18 I was really on my way and starting to travel, playing with some of the top groups. New York City was like, was the hotbed there were 30 or 40 clubs to play in New York City everywhere. So you were playing four or five, six, seven days a week, that doesn’t exist anymore. But at that time in the seventies is when it was really the peak of the Cultural Revolution for Latinos in New York City, and I was a part of that.

Do you feel that ensembles like your band can even exist if kids aren’t learning music in public schools?

That’s a great question, and it’s really a sad statement about our country, right? You know, when you think of Jazz, Jazz is America’s original art form. It should be revered, it should be protected, it should be cherished, alright. And same thing now with Latin Jazz in terms of what we’re doing as an offshoot. As an inner-city kid, music saved my life. So, the truth of the matter is I know that there’s a lot of kids that it (public education) would be an avenue for them to find, or discover, to maybe find the calling and if they’re not exposed, that’s sad stuff. And shame on that aspect of what’s happening in our country. Don’t worry, I’m proud to be an American.

 

Where do you see SHO 15 years from now?

Hopefully in a perfect world, we continue to grow, continue to build, continue to garner. For me, just to keep building on turning people onto to who we are. It’s so gratifying to hear from people who really don’t know who we are, because we do have our fan base. People who know who we are, and they know the history, and know where we come from, and know the level of expertise that we have in the concept of, and the vision of our music. I always feel we’re trying to keep the music on the pedestal we feel that it merits artistically.

 

For someone who has never heard SHO live can you tell them what they should expect at a show?

They will see one of the finest music ensembles, of any style of music. Thirteen musicians who are like a well-oiled machine featuring a five-piece brass section, three percussionist, five-piece rhythm section and three singers. You certainly will enjoy the expertise of the musicianship that you will be listening to, you will also be moved. You’ll be dancing in your seat and you won’t know why.

 

Is there anything else you want to add about being here in Arizona, the tour, the 15th anniversary album, your first time at MIM?

I’m totally blown away artistically, and what a beautiful venue this is, what a beautiful museum it is. I mean the fact that somebody had the foresight and the incredible creative idea to create something like this, God bless that person a million times. Because it’s something that’s lacking in our world, and for people to bring light to it on this level is awesome. It’s what, you know, I feel my music is about. I couldn’t be happier to be here today.

 

For more information about SHO visit SpanishHarlemOrchestra.com.

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