"The Spanish Harlem Orchestra is no doubt one of the best salsa bands in the world," enthuses Oscar Hernández from his home in Los Angeles. He should know. Ever since the ensemble was formed in 2000, he has been its leader, main arranger, and pianist. "I know it sounds like I'm boasting, but ..." He trails off, realizing that he is, in fact, boasting. But it's easy to forgive Hernández, for two very good reasons. For one, he's right. For another, he's just learned that his group has garnered yet another Grammy nomination for its latest CD, United We Swing. The recognition comes on the heels of two consecutive nominations for the group's first disc, Un Gran Dia en el Barrio, and its second, Across 110th St., which won for Best Salsa Album in 2004.
The Spanish Harlem Orchestra harks back to a time when the sound blaring from car stereos and open windows wasn't Timbaland's latest remix or Fergie's latest pop confection but an impossibly heavy concoction of blasting horns, syncopated percussion, and fiercely improvisatory call-and-response Spanish vocals. For a while in the mid-'70s, this style, known as salsa dura (literally, "heavy salsa"), ruled the roost. Ground zero for musicians like the Fania All-Stars, Willie Colon, Eddie Palmieri, and many others was Spanish Harlem, that slice of Manhattan wedged between Harlem on the west and the Upper East Side to the south that was home to New York City's vibrant Puerto Rican community.
"Spanish Harlem in essence was really a microcosm of Latino New York at that time," Hernández recalls. "Latinos were discovering their identity in New York, and music was an important part of that." The musical revolution sparked by bandleaders like Machito, Tito Puente, and Tito Rodriguez that married Afro-Cuban roots with jazz in the 1950s took a distinctive turn in the 1960s. The U.S. economic embargo of Cuba cut off contact with that country just as record numbers of Puerto Rican immigrants arrived in New York. The ensuing "Nuyorican" musical sound — which encompassed the hard-hitting salsa of Willie Colon and Ruben Blades as well as lesser-known Latin-funk hybrids like Joe Bataan and Eddie Palmieri's Harlem River Drive — briefly colonized the national pop charts before exhausting itself by the 1980s. During that era, Latin music started to become synonymous with saccharine balladeers like Luis Miguel and Ricky Martin.
Using a cast who couldn't be more qualified, Spanish Harlem Orchestra picks up where the revolution left off. Heavyweights like Hernández, singers Willie Torres and Ray de la Paz, trombonist Jimmy Bosch, and saxophonist Mitch Frohman bring a collective résumé that includes just about every name associated with Latin music over the last half-century. The orchestra is hardly a museum piece — almost every tune on United We Swing is original — but its classic sound is intentional. "It's a tip of the cap to the old school of what this music is all about, what's important about this music that's kind of been lost," explains Hernández, who isn't shy to criticize salsa's overly cautious direction of late. "There's a slick, polished, pop sound to what you've been hearing the last twenty years or so. Everybody's recording with a click track and overdubbing everything. It's missing some of the essence, the raw organic sound of what it used to be."
That raw aesthetic should be in evidence when the orchestra comes to Yoshi's — a smaller venue for the Grammy favorite. "Usually we play performing arts centers and things," Hernández says, "but this is the way this music is meant to be experienced, the big sound of a band like us just pumping it out, you know?"