Spanish Harlem Orchestra: United We Swing

[24 September 2007]

By Heather Snell

With the establishment of Spanish Harlem Orchestra in 2000, New York old-school salsa experienced an innovative and exciting revival. Basing their sound on the “salsa dura” or heavy salsa that permeated New York City’s Eastside El Barrio community in the 1960s and the 1970s, Oscar Hernández and his 13-member ensemble not only continue a tradition that proved important to the El Barrio community, but they also invest older roots with new meaning by shifting the classical into the contemporary. Their music inaugurates, perhaps, a new golden era in Latin. For as often as Spanish Harlem Orchestra looks back to NYC salsa and the Cuban and Puerto Rican pioneers that made it possible in the first place, the ensemble also looks forward to creating a fresh place for Latin music amid the world’s increasingly globalized and, to use Hernández’s term, “bastardized” beats”.“Our timing was perfect,” Hernández asserts in an interview with Rudy Mangual in Latin Beat Magazine, “because salsa music had been losing its way in recent years to formulaic bands that sounded the same, saturated with the latest trends that bastardized our rich rhythms”.

Although Hernández’s comments in this interview and others come dangerously close to affirming an impossible sense of cultural purity, it is undeniably true that Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s rhythms are unique. Few Latin bands are as able to convey the same amount of energy as this large NYC ensemble. For all that, Hernández has, since the successful releases of the Grammy-nominated Un Dia En El Barrio in 2002 and the Grammy-winning Across 110th Street in 2004, moved away from his New York City neighborhood. The release of United We Swing marks both the ensemble’s creation of original compositions and their signing with the California label Six Degrees.

In contrast to preceding albums, nine of the tracks on the new album were created by the ensemble, a feature that has considerably discouraged Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s critics from complaining about the prevalence of covers. What some critics don’t realize, however, is that new covers of older songs constitute an important facet of the ensemble’s repertoire, which focuses on bringing back to life sounds that risk being forgotten. The modern twists Spanish Harlem Orchestra have introduced to the classics are a necessary first step in their revisionist project. Their collaboration with Six Degrees represents yet another direction for the band, one that has so far been received with enthusiasm internationally.

Indeed, Spanish Harlem Orchestra occupies the cutting edge of contemporary Latin, and nowhere is this more evident than on United We Swing. Oscar Hernández introduces the members of the ensemble in “SHO Intro” to a sizzling mixture of horns, piano, congas and bongas, a musical phrase that aptly precedes and anticipates the album as a whole. The CD only goes upward from there, with “Llegó La Orquesta”/“The Orchestra Has Arrived” showcasing the pleasing vocals of Ray De La Paz and Marco Bermudez and, impossible to ignore, the musical direction and piano work of Hernández himself. This is largely where the group most succeeds, namely: in their seemingly effortless ability to assemble an appealing mix of vocal and instrumental sounds.

Gems include “En El Tiempo Del Palladium”/“In the Times of the Palladium”, “Que Bonito”/“How Lovely”, “Soy Candela”/“I Am Fire” and Hernández’s beautiful “Danzón For My Father”—a tribute, in fact, to his father Emilio Hernández. Yet even this cursory list does not do justice to the ensemble’s at once fun and soothing arrangements, all of which subtly inflect classical Latin with the ensemble’s own, more modern, manipulation of the traditional form. Hernández and his collaborators certainly accede to the title of the album: the tracks are remarkably contained in their unification and coherence, to the point where one track almost seamlessly blends into another while shifting gears into a different, and remarkably distinctive, composition.

The only track that seems to barely fit is the last: “Late in the Evening”/“Tarde En La Noche” is a reconfiguration of Paul Simon’s original of the same name, from his 1980 album One Trick Pony. Despite Simon’s laudable effort to attune his vocals to a Latin arrangement, the track proves somewhat anomalous alongside the others. Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s vocals, moreover, appear to upstage Simon’s. For whatever the reason, “Late in the Evening” seems to fall flat in an album that is otherwise quite expert in its fluid juxtaposition of disparate sounds. For Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s part, the ensemble is proud of their collaboration with Simon. In the same interview cited above, Hernández explains: “I was honored that Paul Simon agreed to do the recording because he doesn’t just record with anybody. In the end, the song sounds like the band performing, with Paul Simon singing lead, which is awesome.” While I don’t share Hernández’s sentiments about the album’s closing track, I must agree with him that notwithstanding Simon’s cameo, the group’s performance on this latest release is, in a word, awesome. United We Swing will appeal mostly to fans of classic and contemporary Latin, but it should also gain some new converts to the genre and remind us all that the traditional still maintains a special place in a world where “bastardization” has become fashionable.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/spanish-harlem-orchestra-united-we-swing/