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Heating It Up With The Spanish Harlem Orchestra

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The weather outside may be frightful but it’s going to be hot inside Brock Centre For The Arts when the 13-piece salsa band, Spanish Harlem Orchestra takes the stage.  Led by world-renowned salsa superstar Oscar Hernandez, this Grammy-winning ensemble is going to set the night on fire!

Hernandez’s passion for salsa was ignited in Spanish Harlem, when he was a boy.  Part of a large Puerto Rican family, he lived in the Bronx during the ‘60s but was irresistibly drawn by the mix of Latin jazz and American pop radio that pumped out of the nearby Spanish Harlem streets all day and all night. When Hernandez took up the trumpet at age 12 and then the piano, the music he played was Latin and it didn’t take long for the talented teenager to connect with some of the most talented Latin jazz artists of the ‘70s. By the time he was twenty, Hernandez was a professional musician, leading his own band, Seis del Solar and producing, arranging and playing piano for Panamanian vocalist Rubén Blades.

After twenty years of living and loving Latin music, Herbandez met producer Aaron Luis Levinson who recognized his extraordinary gifts for composing, arranging and producing and asked him to create a Latin jazz orchestra. The result was the birth of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra – an incredibly successful combination that scored a Grammy nomination for Best Salsa Album and a Latin Billboard Award for Salsa Album of the Year for its debut 2002 recording of Un Gran Dia en el Barrio. The Spanish Harlem Orchestra got its Grammy win with its second album Across 110th Street (a reference to Harlem’s southern boundary) in 2004 and released United We Swing in 2007.  In 2011 the band received its second Grammy for Best Tropical Latin Album with their fourth release, Viva La Tradicíon.  They’re still riding that hot streak.

Says bandleader Hernandez, “Salsa has unique rhythms and a special energy…it’s just the kind of music that makes people want to get up and dance. It doesn’t matter where we go, it’s always the same. We were in Russia recently and we couldn’t believe how well the people knew the music and the dance moves. We’ve been to Israel, Hong Kong, Japan, Indonesia…wherever we go…people love salsa!”

Hernandez certainly does.

“I’m on a mission to play this music with the utmost integrity, as I have for close to 40 years, and to bring that sound to people all over the world.”

There’s no deviating from the essence of the sound – Hernandez won’t allow it. “We have to be absolutely clear on the music, how we do it, and how we record it.  What makes the Spanish Harlem Orchestra special is its dedication to the integrity of the musical form.”

“We’ve been together for ten years,” says Hernandez, “and we’ve had four cds and won two grammies.  But out music is the same across the board.  What makes it unique is that we add new songs with new arrangements – but the sound stays the same. A few years ago, a lot of younger musicians went with a pop sound but Spanish Harlem stayed with the raw sound of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s.  My concept was developed by playing with top musicians – that’s how you get to the essence of the music.  There’s no doubt about what we do. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.”

And it ain’t broke.  That’s for sure.

The Centre For The Arts audience is going to be treated to something extra special when the Spanish Harlem Orchestra performs on December 7th – it will be a first.

Says Hernandez, “We’ve actually never done a holiday themed show before, so it’s been exciting to put this one together.”

Although he does many of the arrangements himself, Hernandez has also brought in a number of other arrangers to work on this special night’s production.  He explains that the combination will be a mix of Latin Christmas music along with traditional North American holiday music, and a whole lot of essential Spanish Harlem Orchestra heat.

Together, the mix promises to add up to an incomparable evening of fabulous rhythms designed to keep you dancing for the rest of the season!

The Author

Liz Fleming, Managing Editor of NaturallyinNiagara.ca, is an award-winning journalist who writes a weekly travel gear column for The Toronto Star as well as regular travel features for The Toronto Star, The Toronto Sun, Cruise and Travel Lifestyles Magazine and CAA Travel. She’s currently a featured commentator on the Astral Media radio stations in southern Ontario, providing daily travel ‘minutes’ and is the editor of WO, the White Oaks Magazine.

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