“Plena Con Sabor”: Spanish Harlem Orchestra

It wasn’t long ago that I spent two spectacular weeks on my favorite islands, Lanzarote (Canary Islands). It’s become a bit more crowded now that most people try to avoid visiting Turkey and other countries that they don’t feel all too safe in anymore, but if you know your way around, you’ll be able to avoid the overcrowding without much effort.

Whenever I’m on the island, I try to counter the raised intake of fabulous food (and cheap – but excellent – cocktails) by taking very long walks, usually around 10 kilometers every morning, along beaches and, later, down those hidden streets that tourists hardly ever pass through unless they have to when trying to get to the beach. On one of those walks, I came close to a small shop far removed from the busy tourist roads that are all over the place and are usually populated by English, Dutch and German people parading their (often obese) and lobster-red bodies around for everyone.

Because the street was comparatively quiet and virtually empty, from far away I noticed this spectacularly fiery South-American music blasting from the shop entrance, apparently from an in-house stereo with a potent speaker setup that had just been fired up. I think I still had 200 meters to walk and I slowed down, taking in the music and at some point stopped, sat down and just listened to the entire CD that was running. When done, and when I noticed that the shop owner had apparently decided to switch to another CD by the same orchestra, I decided to just drop by and ask a) about the music, b) the orchestra and c) why I hadn’t really heard any of it before. The extremely friendly person working in there (I never inquired if it was the owner) answered with a quick draw:

a) “Addictive! Get with it!
b) “Spanish Harlem Orchestra!
c) “Because you’re not around here often enough!

That made me smile and we talked for a while, I fired up my note app on my Android phone to jot down what I had heard, listened to “Plena Con Sabor“, which the guy threw on at full blast to make sure I wouldn’t forget, … and moved on.

— [snip] —

As soon as I had returned to Germany, I read up on the orchestra, bought into all four of its 2002 to 2010 releases and haven’t looked back since. If you love the South American vibe, these guys will just shower you in it.

As is often the case, I had come across the orchestra before, but I had never listened long enough to catch the bug. That has since changed … dramatically. With a slew of awards and nominations under its belt (for example, the orchestra was a 2002 Grammy nominee for ‘Best Salsa Album‘, in 2003 they secured the Latin Billboard Award for ‘Salsa Album of the Year – Best New Group‘, and in 2005 as well as 2010 they bagged the Grammy Awards for ‘Grammy Award for Best Salsa/Merengue Album‘ and ‘Best Tropical Latin Album‘ respectively), the orchestra has been a force to reckon with just about everywhere else but my small hometown which, to say the least, is about as far removed from any take on Latin American music as can be.

I caught the bug for this kind of music when my parents lived in South America and I had the chance to travel around for quite a bit and the bug has stayed with me ever since. My mom always complained way back when that all of (seemingly) ten thousand radio stations in Venezuela only played Salsa music, and she wasn’t too far off, but I took a liking to the music right away. We Europeans simply don’t seem to have the genetic disposition for it, but when you immerse yourself in a culture that does, you just get swept away by the infectious grooves and the joyfulness this music transports. A Venezuelan friend once warned me about listening to a lot of the lyrics too closely, but I never do that with lots of music I enjoy, so no problem there.

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra (SHO) adds great production values to its releases as an added benefit and the only problem I have with the orchestra is that there aren’t more recordings available.

The orchestra itself (around 13 musicians and vocalists) defines the music it plays and releases as “[…] authentic, New York style, hard core salsa.” Founded by band leader Oscar Hernández after twenty years of session work, their debut album came storming out of the gate with guns blazing. “Un Gran Dia en el Barrio” (2002) established their “full force” approach to also presenting this music live. I was surprised that they had decided to go with a ballad as a second opening track, which I wouldn’t have done, but the whole rest is up-tempo and a real blast.

As soon as the second album rolled around in 2004, it became clear that only people with some serious genetic defects wouldn’t move at least parts of their bodies to this music. Funnily enough, the orchestra had moved the (single) ballad to 12th place on the track list and, at least to my ears, the production value wasn’t quite up to par when compared to other releases, but when my favorite album was released 3 years later, “United We Swing” (2007), everything came together to form the perfect whole. That album kicks (and includes Paul Simon doing his ‘Late in the Evening SHO-style, with an Oscar Hernández, who was also arranger, producer and musical director for Simon’s Broadway show, ‘The Capeman‘).

The last album I currently own is their 2010 follow-up release entitled “Viva La Tradition“, although they have since released one more (2014) featuring jazz greats Chick Corea and Joe Lovanao (saxophone), an album which I have yet to listen to (and buy).

In the end, there simply isn’t enough of this music around. To my ears, it doesn’t really come any better than thisand they can count me in when it comes around to a being a regular customer.

Very highly recommended … unless you have severe genetic defects.


Links (Spanish Harlem Orchestra’s website) to some sound clips:

  1. (2002) Un Gran Dia En El Bario
  2. (2004) Across 110th Street
  3. (2007) United We Swing
  4. (2010) Viva La Tradicion
  5. (2014) Spanish Harlem Orchestra

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

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