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Music Review: Spanish Harlem Orchestra – United We Swing

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In the late '60s and early '70s, New York was at the very heart of the newborn salsa scene. Home to many Puerto Rican immigrants, Spanish Harlem was a melting pot of rhythms, dances, and ideas. Each member of the Spanish Harlem Orchestra has an extensive history in that scene – they worked with legends like Celia Cruz, Hector Lavoe and Tito Puente. Band director Oscar Hernandez joins the talent of 13 excellent musicians in his big-band salsa orchestra, reminiscing the heydays of Nuyorican salsa. Sounds promising? Their previous album Across 110th Street even won a Grammy!

And the new album United We Swing is – dare I say – an essential album for salsa lovers. It bursts with nostalgia, but not the kind you can practice sitting down quietly: this is a dance record par excellence. Most of all it's a tribute to the early salsa clubs – third track "El Tiempo Del Palladium" is even named after one. Maybe the lyrics are not that clever, but who cares? As long as the music is solid! Incessant congas and timbales (courtesy of Luisito Quintero), jazzy improvisations on the piano, and chant-and-response vocals all contribute to a general feeling of positivism, a feel-good vibe.

Spanish Harlem Orchestra - United We Swing - Classic Salsa Latin MusicExamples: "Plena Con Sabor" (try to follow that rhythm with your inelegant white ass) and "Salsa Pa'l Bailador". As the title says, excellent for dancing. Both tracks are intertwined with countless improvisations, several layers of percussion, and stirring trumpets. And as a bonus, Paul Simon signs for a salsa rework of his evergreen "Late in the Evening" – an obsolete track in my opinion, but I guess it'll help sell some cd's.

Conclusion: even for people not easily impressed by big names or elaborate dancing, these sunny tunes are still a great way to start the summer. Hernandez and his all-star orchestra show us classic salsa is still very much alive!

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