Oscar Hernández Looks Back on a Lifelong Friendship With Rubén Blades
Oscar Hernández, leader of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra and former pianist and musical director for Rubén Blades, is a New York soul now making his home in Los Angeles.
“I got divorced and I got remarried,” Hernández said. “And my wife was living here, so I was kind of at a crossroads in my life personally, and I just felt I needed a change.”
But the veteran of collaborations with Rubén Blades, Juan Luis Guerra and Paul Simon (he was musical director for Simon’s 1998 musical The Capeman) also continues to play with his landmark Spanish Harlem Orchestra, which by the way is scheduled to play Los Angeles on September 22.
Recently, he took time to look back on his long career and reflect on how a kid from New York ended up on the Left Coast. Hernández said his formative years were a time of uncommon ferment in New York’s Latino community.
“It was a very dynamic time in the city of New York,” he said. “Music was a very big part of the fabric of what was happening within the Latino community .… It also had a lot to do with the development of Latino culture everywhere but particularly in that city, because it became such a mecca for Latinos to emigrate to New York, and I’m part of that.”
Hernández, among the youngest of 11 children of a Puerto Rican family that emigrated to New York in the early 1950s, recalls watching his older siblings getting ready for social functions in the close-knit community.
“The salsa scene was very much the thing in New York,” he said. “The social events involved … going to dances that featured live music and the artists of those days: Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri, Celia Cruz. Looking back on it now I feel that I very much took it for granted all those years.”
That scene was rich in music and talent, but still informal enough that an enterprising young musician could have access to leading lights.
“It was a beautiful era because there was so much happening within the Latino community,” he said. “And on the music end of it there was the equivalent, so much happening that you couldn’t help but be influenced by it in some way. And it influenced me big-time because I was captivated by the music.”
Hernández didn’t go to a music school to learn to play the piano, at least not until much later, when he got his bachelor’s degree from City University of New York. Instead, he took some music classes at the local Boys Club and then got interested in piano, playing on a borrowed instrument in the basement of his apartment building. He began playing professionally at about 16, and by the time he was in his early twenties, he had played with real headliners, like nine-time GRAMMY winner Eddie Palmieri, Cachao and Machito, among others. He also played for six years with the legendary Ray Barretto.
“That was a school in and of itself,” Hernández says. “(It’s) almost like a school that you can’t even pay for. It was amazing.”
Then, in 1974, a young Panamanian lawyer arrived in New York and started trying to break into the salsa scene. His name was Rubén Blades.
“I remember he called me, he called me out of the blue,” Hernández said. “And we kind of became friends and he invited me to dinner, to where he was living, and at that time it was like his before-he-made-it days.”
Blades worked in the mail room of a record company while writing songs and catching gigs. Before long, he was collaborating with bandleader Willie Colón, with whom he made several records. By the early 1980s, Blades was ready to chart his own road.
“He said ‘Look, I’m starting a band and I’m leaving Willie, and I want to start my own thing. It’s time for me to go on my own way,’” Hernández said. “We discussed it, who do you want, etc. … It was perfect timing for me because Rubén had a huge name by then.”
Hernández played with Blades’ Son del Solar through the eighties and early nineties and was there through some of the band’s biggest hits, including Caminando and the GRAMMY winning Escenas. He also produced the Colon/Blades collaboration Tras la Tormenta.
“Rubén is a great artist to work with,” Hernández said. “To this day, he’s like my brother. I kind of think we’re very much alike in many ways, if I indulge myself in comparing myself to him, because we’re people who get a lot of things done in a short amount of time — very focused.”
Both also have a gift of clarity in terms of what they want, in terms of sound and competence.
“He’s that way almost to a fault,” Hernandez said. “He’s very clear. And I pride myself in being very clear. For me, now, the success I’ve had the last ten years with the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, … I’m pretty clear on what I am, what I’m not, what I want to do, what I don’t want to do. So there’s no mystery, there’s no issues.”
Blades’ real innovation was bringing a social consciousness to salsa, which in many circles at that time was considered merely party music. Through his lyrics, Blades gave an ironic bite to songs like “Desaparecidos,” which tells the story of disappeared political dissidents during the Latin American dictatorships of the seventies and eighties. Blades came to be considered the thinking man’s salsero, and other musicians like Juan Luis Guerra have picked up on that tradition and continued it.
“I think it was brilliant,” Hernández said. “It was something that was needed and that’s why he had major popularity and major success, because he was talking on a lot deeper level than just the basic lyrics that you heard on most records up to that time. So he touched a nerve with a lot of people.”
He said some artists claim to stay away from the political arena. But, though one has to pick his battles, that’s not really honest.
“It’s important that we all be political to a certain point because, if not, you get swept up in situations that aren’t fair,” he said. “You have to make waves. You need people to be in the forefront of saying certain things that other people don’t have the access to do.”
In 2001, Hernández founded the Spanish Harlem Orchestra following his work on the album for The Cape Man, and “it’s kind of been my baby ever since.” They have won two GRAMMYs, and in October they’ll be playing in St. Petersburg, Russia.
“It was meant for me to make my own project with my own vision,” he said. “The reason we have four CDs with four GRAMMY nominations and two GRAMMYs won is because I’m doing the music that I absolutely love. And the quality of the music is non-compromisable.”