Salsa music at its best is a visceral experience that pummels listeners and dancers with its relentless, percussion-driven beat. The horns practically blow your hair around when they hit in unison on a dynamic chorus or a percolating melody. It’s music made for dancing, and it can move sweat-drenched dancers around the floor like pinballs. Particularly the New York City brand of salsa purveyed by the Spanish Harlem Orchestra.
The band’s concept is a simple one—play the high-energy music of salsa’s ’60s and ’70s glory days using some of New York’s finest musicians. These players are not the biggest stars, but the guys in the band behind Marc Anthony, Rubén Blades, Celia Cruz, and others. They live the music without the glory.
Featuring band members who grew up back when much of its set list was popularized (members are 35 to 50 years old), Spanish Harlem Orchestra recall those days with the enhanced memory that accompanies a formative musical experience. Now players in their prime, the 12 musicians perform the tunes with the same urgency and excitement they no doubt heard as kids.
Paradoxically, producer Aaron Levinson had already come up with the name and the concept; he just needed someone with the know-how to execute it. Enter pianist-arranger Oscar Hernandez, who was Blades’s musical director, arranged the music for Paul Simon’s Capeman, and has played on hundreds of other projects, including Sex and the City‘s theme song. Amid all this activity, Spanish Harlem is one of those things that have caught on. “No one had any idea this would happen,” says Hernandez, sounding like a lottery winner. “You try the best you can, and if it works out, great. But no one ever really knows what makes a hit record.”
Without one live gig together, they recorded Un Gran Día en el Barrio in the studio over the course of two days for Ropeadope, an eclectic gringo label spearheaded by keyboardist John Medeski. Like the Buena Vista Social Club, the band was manufactured, but also like the BVSC, the sound and authenticity of the playing is undeniable. Proving that if you market it they will come, the album has already crossed over to a more general audience thanks to the label’s distribution through Atlantic, and only now is word of the band crossing back in to the Latin music community.
They played a promising first gig at Joe’s Pub in September at a party marking the release of the album, but there was something missing—dancers. Since then, the Orchestra has played every few weeks, more appropriately hitting salsa clubs like El Flamingo and Babalu. Hernandez and Co. will play again December 9 at El Flamingo, and the scene is guaranteed to be a hot and sweaty one, quite different from the loungey ambience of Joe’s.
“The Flamingo is more of our scene,” Hernandez says. “We play high-energy music and like playing for dancers. We’ll also be on our turf, so to speak.” It’s a potent combination that’s about as close as one can get to the feel of legendary rooms like the Palladium back in its heyday.