The Man Behind Spanish Harlem Orchestra

Oscar Hernandez talks with Pollstar about the Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s uplifting sound and incredibly rich tradition as well as the brand new album that arrived this week.

The next time you need a go-to record for those down-in-the-dumps days, a random selection by the Spanish Harlem Orchestra will definitely lift your spirits.  The two-time Grammy Award-winning band has taken the Latin sounds of New York City to new levels, resulting in music that not only entertains but introduces one’s soul to previously undiscovered countries of melodic excellence.

Through the years Hernandez has played with some of the best Latin artists to grace a stage or recording studio, including Tito Puente and Celia Cruz.  He spent a decade as Rubén Blades’ musical director and worked with Paul Simon on the latter’s Broadway project, “Capeman.”  Herandez also played piano on the theme song for HBO’s “Sex And The City.” 

During our conversation, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra leader/music director described his venture into crowdfunding the band’s latest, self-titled album as well as how he arranged for Chick Corea and Joe Lovano to guest on the LP.

What makes for a great Spanish Harlem Orchestra musician?  What do you look for when filling an opening?

The first thing you look for is [someone] that has a reputation as being a good musician on his instrument. [That’s] No. 1.  I look for team players …  people who don’t come with their own agenda but come with the inclination to be part of a team and part of a team agenda.  Traveling the world like I do with 13 people, it’s important to have people who understand what we’re about and leave their ego at the door. 

I always tell musicians who come play with me, “It’s not how good you play.  It’s how good you do the gig.”  There’s a lot of great players out there, a lot of great musicians who don’t know how to be part of the team and don’t know how to acquiesce their talents to the good of everybody.  That’s important to the sound that we have.  It’s very much evident in our recordings and in our live performances.

But it’s one thing to communicate to another musician as to what you’re looking for.  But how do you describe Spanish Harlem Orchestra to someone whose main musical diet is hit-driven radio or what that person sees on “American Idol?”

Having them listen to a CD, or better yet, listen to a live performance is worth its weight in gold.  I’ll have people come, after one of our live performances, and say, “I never heard of you guys before, but wow!  I’m a fan.”  There’s no substitute for that.  I can explain it until I’m blue in the face and say, “Well, if you want the glossary definition, the book definition, it’s music that is steeped in the tradition of what Latin music was and how it developed in the city of New York in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s and had its heyday in the ’70s.”

It’s part of what Latino culture was experiencing in those years as a new generation in New York.  Music was a big part of it. Cultural exposure, Latinos finding their identity in a new city, a new country.  The music from that time is very raw, very organic, full of energy and, basically, was dance music that people used to party to.  Obviously, It’s Afro-Cuban based, so if you go back further than that, it comes from Cuba.

Yet Spanish Harlem Orchestra manages to sound both familiar and fresh.

There are people for whom music peaks their interest and they want to find out more.  They have to go to the source.  It’s like jazz. If you want to find about the great jazz musicians today, and what their music is about, you have to go back to bebop, the swing era … and learn about Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington – all the great musicians that were part of that history.  Same thing with Latin music. Just like R&B had its heyday in the ’60s and ’70s with Motown, so did Latin Music with Tanya, a record company in the ’70s that [had] a prolific amount of artists and music, all based in the city of New York.  There’s an incredible legacy that we come from.

There is a lot of footage of Spanish Harlem Orchestra on YouTube.  Does that help promote the orchestra or does it not matter?

On one level it doesn’t matter because this world we live in is so saturated with so much stuff anybody can find anything on YouTube and that kind of trivializes so much in music.  On another level, yeah, [it show] who we are. … There’s a number of [performances] you can find on YouTube [where you’ll] go “Yes!” I think it’s more of a positive than a negative.  People can actually get a glimpse of the band, who we are, what our sound is and how people react to it. It’s pretty cool.

Other musicians have talked about when assembling large groups – big bands, orchestras, and the like, that it can take years of playing and experimenting before nailing down the groove. Did you have a similar experience when launching Spanish Harlem Orchestra?

It took us a minute but for me, I’ve been playing this music since I was 16.  So we’re talking about 40 years, now. I had the good fortune to play with some great musicians.  That’s my university.  I have a doctorates degree, I guess, in playing [at a young age] with some of the greatest Latin musicians that existed. Like Machito, Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, Ed Burrito, Rubén Blades, on and on.  The list is pretty endless. … It’s pretty much a who’s who of Latin music and I’ve been very fortunate to share stages and recordings as producer, arranger, pianist.  It’s pretty impressive, now, looking back for me.  There’s no ego involved, it’s just a matter of fact.  But I do have a sense of pride when people point out … that there is a lot of great stuff that’s documented that I’ve done.  I look back with a lot of pride. It makes me happy.

As far as finding the groove … After all these years I make it clear to my musicians.  They understand it.  That’s why they are there.  They come from the same cloth in terms of how to play this music on the level that we do it.  It’s the reason we have four Grammy nominations and two Grammys won.  And we have another great record … that’s on par with the other ones.  It’s what we do, it’s what we’re about.  There are no doubts  as to what my groove is.

When you and the orchestra go into the studio, do you know what the finished record will sound like even before you start recording?

I have a clear picture but you never know because you’re trying to create magic when you’re in the studio.  As you’re putting the elements together, you’re creating, hopefully, an environment amongst yourself and the musicians who are involved to be free enough within the framework of what we have.  We have the songs, we have the arrangements – that’s the basis. … We use that as a springboard to move forward in a comfortable fashion. … We try to find a way to [provide] a platform for all the musicians to create on a level that, honestly, you don’t see anymore because most records are mass-produced and most records are made with intentions to be commercial.  We don’t follow that.  I’m not into being the flavor of the day, the month or the year.  Our music is clear.  Our thread runs through every one of our records.  There’s a true genuineness in what we do … the groove that we want.

When you’re performing on stage, what do you see when you look out into crowd?

Inevitably I see … a good mix of different types of people who come to our shows looking to have a good time.  It depends on where we’re performing.  Sometimes we’re performing at places that are unexpected. … Two weeks ago we were in San Antonio.  Not our stereotypical audience, but I can tell you there were 1,000 people on their feet at the end of the show asking for more. I’m out there selling CDs and I can tell you that the feedback I get is pretty amazing.  Thank God we’re getting people who know who we are and what to expect. And the people who don’t know are really nicely surprised. It’s a cool thing and I’m blessed to be doing this.

It’s hard to imagine audiences just sitting through a Spanish Harlem Orchestra performance and not wanting to dance in the aisles.

Ironically, we play a lot of performing arts centers [where there isn’t room to dance] but at the end of the show people can’t help it and they’ll run out to the aisle or to the side and dance. … Sometimes the dancing trivializes the art form of the music.  People are partying, dancing and they just want to have a good time. They forget there is a great band [on stage] that is putting out on a really high level musically and artistically. … So I prefer to play in a performing arts center, [for] people to be in their seats and get the essence in their hearts and want to move, but at the same time listen to the great musicianship.

Let’s break it down a bit.  There are 13 musicians in Spanish Harlem Orchestra.  Does that include yourself?

There are five horn players, three percussionists, three singers, bass, and I am the pianist and musical director.

How do you move  from city to city?

We tend to fly, depending on where we are.  This month we have three shows in New York and one in Keane, N.H.  Keane – we’re driving there. We’ll rent cars and it’s a four-hour drive.  Anything over four or five hours, we’ll fly. It’s part of the budget. When my booking agent calls me and says we have an offer, I look at it [and] I look at the airfares and see if it’s doable. Hotels are not an issue, ground transportation is not an issue, it’s basically airfare. We’ve been doing this for a while so I’m pretty organized on how to do it.

No extra gear and people?

No, because we have a backline request, a tech rider that asks for exactly what we need.  Each city that we play, they need to have what we need.  Usually, 95 percent of the time, we don’t have an issue with that.  Occasionally, we’ll be in a city in Canada or something, and they’ll say they can’t find a percussion instrument … we’ll take it with us if needed.

Are there problems or issues that come up in presenting your sound in large theatres or performing arts centers?

Usually whatever issues come up, we address them … we always do sound checks.  For instance, we played Carnegie Hall, traditionally an acoustic hall.  So we tried to go as acoustic as possible because we don’t want the music to be too loud and we want people to appreciate it in its natural state.  So we’ll consider the room and go as acoustic as possible.  In some cases not even mixing the horns or the percussion.

Was that the first time you turned to fans to finance an album?

Yeah.  We decided to hook our wagon to ArtistShare, one of the most reputable crowdfunding organizations that exist.  It does things on a very professional level and has a reputation of doing things right. Our last record was on Concord and that won the Grammy. But I wasn’t too happy with what they were looking for in the next record.  So I decided that maybe it was time to do it on my own. Obviously I needed some help and ArtistShare was there to say, “Yes.  We’ll be happy to do it.”

Having been a professional musician for decades, did it seem a little odd to turn to the fans to fund an album?

Totally. It wasn’t something I would say I cared to do.  But it’s the sad reality of the state of music these days.  We’re doing music that we feel is on a high artistic level so we like to think there are enough … people that understand that.

How did you end up with ArtistShare? 

A couple of people recommended them to me.  I researched who was on their label, who they had done in the past, and I reached out to them personally and they were happy to be involved with us. I had a good feeling about it.  It hasn’t worked out as best as I can possibly say, but sometimes things take time.  Nevertheless  … we now have another great record. 

Truth is, we had already done the record when we approached them.  We hadn’t mixed or mastered it, but the music was done.  I had paid for it myself and I needed to get reimbursed for it.  It’s not like I’m making a ton of money.

How did get Chick Corea and Joe Lovano to guest on the album?

We’ve always had collaborations.  Paul Simon was the executive producer on the last record and was he collaborated with me on the previous record.

Joe Lovano is with the same booking agent [as we are]. … I reached out to him and he said he’d love to do it.

Chick Corea, I had met his wife at the Grammys a few years back and we became friends. She said [Chick] would love to meet you.  I’m a pianist so he’s one of my heroes.

I wrote him a letter.  She wrote back to me right away saying, “Chick is on the road. I can’t even get ahold of him … but here’s his email address.  Why don’t you reach out to him personally?”

Three weeks later I got an email from his manager saying, “Chick is interested in your project and would love to hear it.”

We made arrangements. … I emailed [the song] to him and the manager immediately called me back, saying, “Chick loves it. He wants to do it.”

What do you see in the future for Spanish Harlem Orchestra?

For me, personally?  This is a long term venture.  It’s going to be with me for the rest of my life. I’ve created something that has incredible credibility.  We have four CDs, all of which have been nominated for Grammys, and we’ve won Grammys.  This one is on the same path. I can’t see it not being nominated. Truth being told, if there’s a better Latin music CD than what we have, I’d like to hear it.  But I don’t think so. No ego involved with this.  It’s just a matter of doing this for so many years.  Having a passion and being diligent about music that we love and music that I’ve held dear and near to my heart since I was a kid.

“I’m not into being the flavor of the day, the month or the year.  Our music is clear.  Our thread runs through every one of our records.”

Upcoming shows for the Spanish Harlem Orchestra:

Sept. 26 – Keene, N.H., Redford Arts Center on Brickyard Pond – Keene State College
Sept. 27 – Nyack, N.Y., West gate Lounge @ Best Western
Sept. 29 – New York, N.Y., CD Release Party @ S.O.B.’s
Oct. 16-19 – Seattle, Wash., Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley
Oct. 25 – Sony Brook, N.Y., Staller Center For The Arts
Nov. 21 – New York, N.Y., Tribeca Performing Arts Center
Dec. 13 – Des Moines, Iowa, Sheslow Auditorium
Jan. 22 – Richmond, Va., Camp Concert Hall

Please visit for more information.