During the early stages of Rubén Blades’ revolutionary and influential solo work (starting with Buscando América in 1984, the first of three unprecedented trombone-less salsa albums), pianist Oscar Hernández played a pivotal role.
As pianist and musical director of Seis del Solar, the band Blades assembled, inspired by the notable Joe Cuba Sextet (or “Sextette”) of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the Bronx-born Hernández (who previously had spent some years with the great Ray Barreto) was the perfect arranger for Blades’ challenging music and socially conscious lyrics. And even though Cuba didn’t use trombones either, Blades was the first one in the salsa era to give up the instrument in favor of vibraphone and keyboards. All at a time when having a salsa orchestra without trombones was like having a heavy metal band without guitars. It proved to be a risk worth taking.
“It was more a risk for Rubén than for myself, to be honest,” Hernández says on the phone from Amsterdam. “Thanks to his work with Willie Colón, he was the number-one salsa star of the time, and what he did was to turn his back to the sound that propelled him to that place. On the other hand, his success with Willie was possible, in great part, thanks to `Blades’` voice and songs. But he stuck to the new sound and we were able to stay together for 13 years and make music that stills sounds good today and of which I’m proud.”
Founded in 2000, Hernández’s current group, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra (which plays at the Empire Theatre on May 1), is arguably the best tropical orchestra in the world (if you ask me, only Cuba’s Afro Cuban All Stars even come close). With a mix of solid originals and totally re-arranged covers, SHO pays tribute to the golden era of NY’s salsa dura (the glorious hard salsa of the 1970s), the opposite of the tepid salsa romántica and Dominican merengue that seem to control today’s salsa market.
“Sincerely, originally we were only going to record an album with the concept of recovering what salsa romántica had destroyed, but we weren’t expecting the success that we’ve had,” Hernández says. As it turned out, SHO released three albums, the second of which won a Grammy for Best Salsa/Merengue Album (Across 110th Street, with Blades as a guest).
Why is it, then, that listeners and dancers dig SHO, but musicians refuse to follow its musical path in favor of more commercial crap?
“I’m not exactly sure,” Hernández says. “To be perfectly honest, when you see the band now, it’s a level that’s hard to match. I mean… merengue is horrible, man. The only person to me who is playing merengue the way it should be played is Juan Luis Guerra. I’m a fan of his, and I’m honored to have recorded on three of his records. The merengue I grew up with in the ’60s was good, but the merengue other people do now is kind of obscene and so un-musical.”
Blades’ songs, though excellent, were a dancer’s nightmare (full of stops, pauses, twists and turns), but SHO has a more straight-forward, dancer-friendly approach. Musically, however, it’s as good as it gets.
So a message to the dancers: You’ll be able to dance at the Empire Theatre show. But you better be ready to listen as well.
“The good thing about SHO is that we’re not that interested to play at salsa dance events,” Hernández says. “`Those places` tend to trivialize what we do. When you go see SHO in concert, you’re treated to a really good show on a musical level, regardless of the fact that it’s salsa. Sometimes it’s a stereotype that we fight.
“When you see us live, you realize we’re not just a dance orchestra, even though at the end everyone is dancing. But we’re a concert band and promoters need to promote it as such. We need to raise people’s consciousness about our music, not only about SHO, but in general. We’re not about ‘get up and dance.’ Latinos also like to enjoy music from an aesthetic level.” •
Spanish Harlem Orchestra
7:30pm Thu, May 1
226 N. St. Mary’s St.