Spanish Harlem Orchestra's 2003 debut Un Gran Dia En El Barrio was like balsam in the desert for fans of New York salsa. With this year's Best Salsa Grammy for Across 110th Street, the mantle of the mambo kings and queens has officially passed. Spanish Harlem Orchestra plays May 1, and musical director Oscar Hernandez headlines the Latin Jazz All Stars on May 3 ( www.piedmontjazzfest.org). Here's what he told us about making salsa the old fashioned way--live, driven and in your face.
What inspired you to revive the great dance band traditions of the '50s, '60s and '70s?
It wasn't my original intent, honestly, but it turned out to be such a beautiful thing. The essence of what this music is really about has been lost, I'd say in the last 15 years. It becomes a singer's vehicle nowadays, where you go and see a singer, and you see the songs sung and played exactly like it is on the record, and you don't see anybody else featured in the band. Unlike that, with Spanish Harlem what you get is a total package. You get three great singers up there, with a chemistry of their own, interacting with ten musicians, and they all get featured in the course of an evening. That's what we feel the essence of this music is.
Who did you learn the music from?
People like Celia Cruz and Machito and Tito Puente. I was playing with a lot of good people at a very early age, so I was very fortunate.
What's it like to get some overdue recognition for the great artists in the New York scene, including yourself?
It's nice to get the recognition and the credibility that I feel we deserve. It's my time. It's our time. There's no doubt about it. I'm totally accepting it and I say it without ego, I'm really good at what I do. It's nice to receive the accolades and to get credit, to be able to do things on the level that I feel things need to be done. The fact [that] we're getting some notoriety and recognition affords me that ability, and that's important to me.
What's coming up for your next album?
For our third record, we're going to be completely self-contained, including probably doing mostly original material. It's not like we had to [do covers], those are songs that we like to re-do and songs that we love, so we wanted to show them in a different light, now in our own perspective, all these years later. We're not changing concepts, because it's still going to be hardcore, in your face, rhythmic driven music for sure.