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SPANISH HARLEM COMES TO SAN FRANCISCO

Multimedia_ImageOscar Hernandez, pianist, arranger and band leader, brought the Spanish Harlem Orchestra to San Francisco on March 22, 2003 and enthusiastic, grateful audience. Their debut CD Un Grand Dia en El Barrio is a Salsa dancer's dream and was nominated for a Grammy award. He shares the date at the Bill Graham Civic center with legendary Latin music great Eddie Palmieri and stellar vocalist,  La India.  Mr. Hernandez has a rich and extensive musical legacy and played with Chocolate Armenteros, Ruben Blades, Pete "El Conde" Rodriguez, Manny Oquendo Y Conjunto Libre, and eventually with Ray Barretto.  Here are some of thoughts on Latin music in a recent interview by rita@salsacrazy.com 

WHO WERE SOME OF THE LATIN MUSIC AND JAZZ MUSICIANS THAT YOU LISTENED TO DURING YOUR FORMATIVE MUSICAL YEARS? 

In the early years I was basically just listening to Latin pianists. But as I associated myself with different musicians in NY, I started listening to other types of music and I got exposed to Jazz.  The rich tradition of American Jazz and I started listening to all the great Jazz pianists of those days.  I heard people like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner who were in forefront of Jazz in the 70ís.  Later I  listened  to earlier musicians such as  Wynton Kelly, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and geniuses like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and  John Coltrane.  All these musicians were an important part of the development of my musical concepts. 

Among the Latin players who influenced me were Eddie Palmieri, Sonny Bravo, Eddie Martinez, Gil Lopez and Ricardo Rey.  Papo Luca , an incredible pianist  and the leader of La Sonora Poncena, had a big influence on me.  These were the guys at the forefront of the music in the early 70ís. 

WHILE YOU WERE WITH RAY BARRETO, YOU WORKED ON  GROUND BREAKING RECORDING CALLED RICAN STRUCTION.  CAN YOU TELL ME MORE ABOUT THAT PROJECT? 

Ray Barretto was always at the forefront of trying to do new things with the music and was very influenced by Jazz. He was a huge lover of Jazz and he was a connoisseur of all the great Latin music that preceded him. He always tried to integrate all those elements in his bands.  RICAN STRUCTION was part of that process.  He wanted to form a band with a new concept featuring a  lot of the great players of that day and I was fortunate to be part of that.


CAN YOU SAY A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR TIME PLAYING WITH MANNY OQUENDO AND CONJUNTO LIBRE?

 I played with them for several years and I recorded on their first 4 CDs.  They were important in keeping the tradition of the great music alive.  They took what Eddie Palmieri had done in the 60ís and 70ís and maintained that musical tradition.  Manny was one of the people who was an important part of Eddie Palmieriís sound during the early years.  I was fortunate enough to join the band in its early days when it was lead by Manny and the great bassist Andy Gonzalez.   

I KNOW THAT YOU HAVE MENTIONED THE HUGE INFLUENCE EDDIE AND CHARLIE PALMIERI HAD ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE LATIN MUSIC SCENE IN THE 60ís and 70ís.  CAN YOU TELL ME MORE ABOUT THAT. 

When I first started playing Eddie and Charlie were the leaders among  Latin piano players.  Eddie had his own  band and Charlie with his distinctive  piano style also had his own band and played with a lot of other groups.  Charlie  had incredible technique as a pianist- in the vein of Oscar Peterson or Art Tatum.  Eddie produced a really tasty sound in his band.   They were two of the top pianists who were setting the trend back in those days. 

MOVING  AHEAD BY 20 YEARS,  TELL HOW THE CONCEPT FOR THE SPANISH HARLEM ORCHESTRA DEVELOPED? 

The idea was originally from Aaron Levinson, the producer of the CD.  Aaron was selling this concept to one of the major record labels and he thought I would be the best person to get the idea across. So when he called me, I told him I thought it was a great idea.  When we met, we discussed the project, who the singers would be  and what the songs would be.  We had big discussions about the songs since there were many different opinions about what music to include. 

SPANISH HARLEM ORCHESTRAWHAT WAS THE CONCEPT BEHIND THE SPANISH HARLEM ORCHESTRA? 

The concept was to present this great music of NY  during the 70ís which influenced the rest of the world and became salsa music.  We wanted to take those concepts, style and the sounds  that made the music great and try to do it today.  We have musicians who come from that old school tradition and have played with the major bands of that era.  Some of the musicians like me were began our careers during that era and we remember those times.   

HOW DID YOU CHOOSE THE SONGS THAT FINALLY APPEARED ON THE CD?

It was a very difficult process.  We could have easily chosen another 10 songs which is probably what we will do for the next record. We basically discussed the songs that we liked and finally came up with the list. There was so much material to choose from that the process was very difficult. 

WHY DO YOU THINK THAT SPANISH HARLEM HAS BEEN SUCH  A RICH SOURCE OF INCREDIBLE MUSIC AND MUSICIANS OVER THE YEARS? 

Spanish Harlem in New York City has been  one of the most culturally important places for Hispanic people since the 1940ís.  Spanish Harlem is where they migrated to and  where they settled.  So there have been  a lot things happening there  since the 40ís all the way through the 60ís and 70í.  The development of  our music coincided with the blossoming of the Latino culture in the U.S.  This emerging influence of Latin culture was particularly important in NY because this area had a such a large influx of Latino people.   Spanish Harlem is one of the places that the center of the development of Latino culture in NY.  Out that experience and history came the MUSIC which is an important part of Latino culture.  That is why it is such an important place. 

WHAT KINDS OF MEMORIES DO YOU HAVE WHEN YOU LISTEN TO THE CD?

I love all the songs on the record for many different reasons.  Some of them I remember as part of my formative years on the music scene.  I remember going to parties listening to certain songs.  Going to social events with my parents and later with my friends and listening to these same songs.  As a musician I have a special view of songs and I am touched by these songs just like the general public.  All the songs have  a positive effect on me. 

WILL THERE  ANOTHER VOLUME OF THE SPANISH HARLEM ORCHESTRA? 

We were pleasantly surprised about the success of this record.  We were nominated this year for the Grammyís and two Billboard awards.  I think that type of recognition is a reflection of the integrity and honesty  that we brought to the music.  I think it is a no-brainer to say that we want to keep this musical experience happening.  We would definitely like to do another record and we are in the planning stages for that now.   We are in the process of picking out the material we  would use on the next recording. 

FOR SOMEONE WHO WANTS TO HEAR MORE OF THE CLASSIC, HARD EDGED  NY STYLE SALSA70ís, WHAT ARTISTS WOULD YOU RECOMMEND THEY LISTEN TO? 

I would say listen to anything during  the 70ís by Eddie Palmieri and Ray Barretto.  Also they should hear Willie Rosario and Sonora Poncena from Puerto Rico. The music of Tommy Olivencia and the Apollo Sound are also standouts.  If you want to go back further, go back to the Tito Puente, Tito Rodriguez and Machito  records.  That is were the roots of the music comes from.  Those are some  of the important artists but there are so many more. 

ANY MORE THOUGHTS FOR OUR READERS?

 Hopefully they will come down to see us on March  22nd which is also my birthday. So they can wish me Happy Birthday.  They should come down and listen to the band in person and support live music.  That is very important.  Now due to economy and many other reasons,  the music business is really struggling. Now it is very important to  support the people who trying to do good music.  I know there  a lot of avid Latin music fans in the Bay Area and we rely on them to support our work.

 THIS WAS A GREAT SALSA DANCE PARTY.