Spicy salsa direct from Spanish Harlem

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra will bring back the authenticity of the genre with its concert at Northrop

Don M. Burrows

The more saturated and mass-produced our culture becomes, the more people yearn for the authentic.

One remedy is coming to the Northrop Auditorium on Sunday, as the Spanish Harlem Orchestra continues to bring genuine hard-driving salsa to the world.

What does real salsa sound like? A baker’s dozen of talented musicians whose individual performances create an ensemble of sound. This is not the pop salsa of the late ’80s and ’90s, of a singer with backup. And bandleader Oscar Hernandez is quick to point that out.

“Don’t get me wrong, I’m not completely dissing that kind of music. Some of it is well done,” Hernandez said in an interview with the Daily last week. “But those key elements of what the essence of the music is are lost.”

Those key elements have to do with the band and members’ interaction, their solos and the layers of music during any given moment of true salsa. Even a compact disc, which fails to capture the dynamics of a live performance, still hits the listener with that barrage.

“When you do see Spanish Harlem Orchestra, there are 10 musicians and three singers, and you get the full spectrum of what that is… letting the creative energy and the creative flow between all the musicians happen,” Hernandez said. “We try to, in each performance, leave X amount of room to let the creative process happen.”

Hernandez and the other members of his band are, in effect, keeping traditional salsa alive. As the children of Latino immigrants, they grew up hearing salsa in New York City. They tour the world to bring the music they grew up with to new audiences and those longing for the traditional beat.

“It developed in its own unique way here in New York,” Hernandez said. “The music had its own raw dynamic. That’s part of the music that we in the band grew up with, and got to experience at a very young age.”

But that tradition gave way in the late ’80s and ’90s to the image-based music industry, and salsa as it had been known appeared to be disappearing.

“I think in the late ’80s, early ’90s, salsa sort of lost its way. It lost what the essence of what the music really is,” Hernandez said.

He said his world-touring group has enjoyed success for doing the opposite: returning to their roots as musicians.

“That’s I think part of the success that we’ve had, that people recognize the authenticity of it and the genuineness of what we’re trying to put out.”

This genuineness “transcends it even being salsa,” as Hernandez put it. Even those unfamiliar with that genre will appreciate the skill of so many talented musicians playing at the same time in harmony.

“That’s part of the orchestra’s ambition as well,” Hernandez said. “I like to think that we’re on a mission to keep a strong foothold, and to keeping this music alive and well.”

Mission accomplished.