Spanish Harlem Orchestra, El Barrio ensemble gets into the Grammy groove

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra is the real deal.

While realtors are rebranding the band’s namesake neighborhood as SpaHa (a gentrified home to Manhattan‘s first Target), the musicians toiling in the uptown ensemble embody the mettle that first put El Barrio on the map – and led to the group’s fourth Grammy nomination.

“It’s taken me 35 years now to become the greatest thing since hot water,” says Oscar Hernandez, co-founder and leader of the 13-member salsa band.

“We’re not a bunch of flyweights.

We’ve earned the right to take that name. Spanish Harlem is a microcosm of Latinos in the city … and we play quintessential New York salsa.”

Hernandez, 56, was born and raised in the South Bronx, but he was drawn along with many Puerto Ricans in the ’70s to El Barrio’s vibrant cultural scene.

“Spanish Harlem was a place where Latinos congregated,” he says.

“Similar to what was happening in black Harlem … it was an important place for the development of Latin culture. We hopped on the train and came down for the shopping, the social events, to visit family members.”

And, of course, to listen to music.

Hernandez haunted the Latin jazz and salsa clubs, particularly the now-shuttered Corso at 86th St. and Lexington Ave. (“there’s a gym there now,” he says mournfully), and began playing piano professionally by the time he was 15.

He got his big break at 18 when Ismael Miranda, aka El Niño Bonito de la Salsa (The Pretty Boy of Salsa), invited Hernandez to join him. “He was a young, good-looking singer, so all the girls came out to see us,” he laughs.

That was the perfect springboard to begin networking with other city musicians.

“It was the university of the streets,” he recalls. “During the course of now thirtysomething years, I’ve gotten to play with everybody.

Drop a name, and I’ve played with them or recorded with them.”

Those names include greats like Celia Cruz, Ray Barretto, Ruben Blades and Paul Simon.

“I learned from the best, and I learned from the worst,” he laughs. “So when I formed my own band back in 2000, I came in with a lot of experience.”

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra has also paid its dues over the last 10 years, performing “hard-core salsa” as opposed to softer, radio-friendly sounds, and building an underground fan base.

“We play salsa dura, which is raw and hard-hitting,” he explains. “Romantic pop salsa today doesn’t have that hard-core energy the music had in the ’60s and ’70s. That sound had been lost, and that’s what we brought back to the table. Now people are going, ‘Wow, these cats are some badass dudes!’ ”

All four of the orchestra’s albums have been nominated for Grammys. “Across 110th Street,” their second record, took the 2002 award for Best Salsa/Merengue Album.

“I got really emotional afterward,” Hernandez says. “I cried. I’m not ashamed to admit it. It’s an immense feeling of pride, getting recognized for something you’ve been doing for so long.”

Their latest album, 2010’s “Viva La Tradición,” is up for Best Tropical Latin Album tonight.

“I’m taking my little entourage and looking forward to the Grammys again,” he says. “I get to rub shoulders with the music world, and the after-parties are off the hook. It’s an amazing time, but obviously it’s a whole lot better if you win!”

He feels pretty confident about his orchestra’s chances.

“The quality of the music that we do speaks for itself,” he says. “And as good as the record sounds, the band sounds even better in person. It’s one of the finest ensembles of music of any kind that you’ll find anywhere in the world. I really feel that in my heart.”

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BY Nicole Lyn Pesce

Friday, February 11th 2011, 11:14 PM


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