By: Oscar Hernandez, AARP
Being born and raised in New York City, the music that I heard from every other window and door in my neighborhood was mainly the music of what was characterized as salsa later on. It wasn’t called salsa back in those days, but it was the music of the big three, Tito Puente, Machito, and Tito Rodríguez; as well as Eddie Palmieri, Charlie Palmieri, Johnny Pacheco, just to name a few. And the great bolero singers and trios that our parents used to listen to, Los Panchos, Los Condes, Los Tres Ases. It was part of the Latino cultural revolution that was happening in the city of New York dating back to the 50s.
I think, in a sense music saved my life. When I think of how I started, the youngest in a family of 11. We lived in a big building in the South Bronx, and my oldest brother was the superintendent of the building we lived in, and somebody gave him a piano. He had this basement that he painted beautifully and put the piano there and I started to imitate the music I was listening to, and then playing with local neighborhood musicians. God knows we could have never afforded to buy a piano, so for me, it was divine intervention.
One particular song that has been with me through the years is Azucar, by Eddie Palmieri. That song was captivating in terms of the swing, in terms of the essence of what that music conveyed. Being a young pianist myself, it influenced me and opened the doors to so many other things musically.
I worked early on with Celia Cruz, I worked with Tito Puente, I worked with Ray Barretto, I worked with Rubén Blades, all those people represented the best of our culture through their music. I remember my first encounter with Celia Cruz at 21 years of age; I was asked to accompany her on the piano in Toronto. I just went, wow. This music is amazing, this woman is amazing. I worked—again, as a 20, 21-year-old musician—with Israel “Cachao” López, the great bassist from Cuba. These were indelible experiences.