Note: Since going to press this event has been canceled.
By the time the Spanish Harlem Orchestra lands in Ann Arbor on Friday June 20, a portion of the Power Center will have been temporarily modified to accommodate dancers in the audience–a sensible provision for those who are sure to find it impossible to sit still. The show is general admission, so dedicated salsa lovers probably ought to make a point of showing up early to secure seats with reasonable access to the dance floor. When the band ignites, the effect promises to be almost volcanic, with blazing trumpets, roaring trombones, and the booming baritone sax. As a team of Caribbean percussionists fan the flames behind three energetic vocalists hollering, harmonizing, and moving in unison on the front line, even audience members who aren’t on their feet will be more or less dancing in their seats.
“Salsa” is a word with piquant culinary connotations, and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra generally cooks at a rolling boil. While they are also adept at delivering beautifully crafted ballads, the term salsa dura or “hard salsa” has been used to differentiate the SHO from contemporary Latin pop artists who occupy the sweeter salsa romantica category. Pianist Oscar Hernandez, whose involvement with the orchestra dates back to its inception in 2000, describes its sound as being based in Latin American musical traditions which flourished in the cultural cauldron of East Harlem during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. While he proudly invokes bandleaders Machito and Tito Puente as archetypal predecessors, the lineage goes as far back as the late 1940s, when jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie profoundly altered the currents of North American music by incorporating Afro-Cuban elements into his New York-based big band.
It’s no coincidence then that Oscar Hernandez, whose lengthy professional history includes collaborations with Ray Barretto, Ruben Blades, and Celia Cruz, is also a highly evolved jazz pianist whose improvised solos with the SHO bring to mind the richly textured rhythm structures of Randy Weston and Hilton Ruiz. With all of its Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Colombian, and North American jazz taproots firmly in place, the modern salsa tradition flourished in the 1970s, mushroomed with the turn of the millennium, and continues to attract and retain a devoted following. Even as hybrid salseros spring up in locales as diverse as Scotland, India, Italy, and Japan, the authentic upper Manhattan variety is vividly represented by the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. The tradition they stand for is very much alive, and their appearance at the Ann Arbor Summer Festival is a cause for celebration.