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HOT SALSA GRAMMY-WINNING SPANISH HARLEM ORCHESTRA KEEPS AUTHENTIC SOUND VERY MUCH ALIVE.

Byline: Fred Shuster Music Writer

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra makes dance music worth listening to.

The 13-member ensemble uses the bracing sounds of trumpets, trombones, baritone saxophone, conga, bongo, timbale, upright bass and acoustic piano to create salsa that's both modern and historic, packing dance floors around the world along the way.

Dedicated to preserving the vital history of classic Latin orchestras while also making new sounds for 21st-century audiences, the Grammy-winning outfit has been making a splash around the world for six years.

``I know it's dance music,'' said the orchestra's pianist/arranger Oscar Hernandez, ``but there's a lot more going on. The thing about salsa is the rhythm, harmonies and arrangements, plus the way the percussion works with the bass and piano. And when you add the horns and singers, it's an amazing experience.''

Hernandez, who is based in New York's Bronx, is well-seasoned. Initially known for his work as musical director for Ruben Blades' 1980s backup group Seis del Solar, he also came to wide attention as composer of the musical theme for HBO's ``Sex and the City.'' He has also gigged with such salsa giants as Tito Puente, Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco, and worked with Julio Iglesias, Earl Klugh, Dave Valentin, Kirsty MacColl and Paul Simon.

Founded in 2000, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra - appearing tonight at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles - won the 2004 Grammy Award for best salsa album (``Across 110th Street'') and best new artist at the 2003 Billboard Latin Music Awards. They were also nominated for a Grammy in 2002 for best salsa album.

``As musicians, we've absorbed the traditions and legacy of what came before, and we don't have any intention of making this music commercial just for the sake of it,'' Hernandez, 51, said. ``I guess we could have rap and reggaeton elements, but that's not what we're trying to do. We want people to appreciate the music for what it is - and there are a lot of knowledgeable fans in tune with what we're doing.''

The ensemble has played to sold-out houses in Hong Kong, Istanbul, Glasgow, Brussels, London, Paris and Montreal, to name a few centers where the band has toured, bringing salsa to folks who may never have experienced the brassy, syncopated sound in person.

The U.K.'s Telegraph newspaper raved after a London gig that the group's ``salsa style manages to balance raw percussive power and ferocious brass with sophisticated arrangements; it's the opposite end of the Latin spectrum from the syrupy salsa romantica that mysteriously appeals to so many Latinos.''

The orchestra, which is booked to appear at the Playboy Jazz Festival on June 17 at the Hollywood Bowl, recalls the great Fania All-Stars, which in the '70s was the house band of New York's Fania Records and comprised the label's bandleaders, top sidemen and vocalists. The group also brought salsa to legions of new listeners and was eventually marketed like a rock band.

``The analogy is made with Motown and the r&b world - in the Latin world it was Fania,'' Hernandez said. ``They took the music to a higher level worldwide and developed a lot of careers. They had a huge influence.''

Hernandez is heartened by the growing interest in his band and the music of Puerto Rico, which blossomed in New York's barrios in the '40s and '50s.

``There's a new generation coming up that's so saturated with music made by computers that they're hungry for something else,'' he said. ``With so much going on, it's hard for them to concentrate on one thing, and I can understand that. So, when they see us, it's a whole new thing. We're like a big machine that comes rolling right up.''

Fred Shuster, (818) 713-3676

fred.shuster(at)dailynews.com

SPANISH HARLEM ORCHESTRA

Where: El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.

When: 9 tonight.

Tickets: $25. (213) 480-3232; ticketmaster.com.

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The Spanish Harlem Orchestra is in town for tonight's El Rey show and will return in June for the Playboy Jazz Festival.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 10, 2006
Words:676
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