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John Child conducts an in-depth interview with the much respected sonero, Hermán Olivera.

Locked In With Hermán Olivera

Interview by John Child (

John Child,'s London contributor, speaks to another member of the Libre diaspora: sonero Hermán Olivera. Others have been Hermán's "bandstand brother", trombonist/leader Jimmy Bosch, and sonero/Los Soneros del Barrio leader Frankie Vázquez (in collaboration with David Barton). John hooked-up with Hermán for a rewarding interview immediately after his performance with Eddie Palmieri's La Perfecta II at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall concert on May 24th 2002.

John uses the title Locked In With Hermán Olivera for a couple of reasons. Not only were they locked in a fascinating dialogue, during which Hermán talked about the sonero art and his career, including his current work with Palmieri's group and their hit album La Perfecta II on Concord Picante; and speaks candidly about the special state of consciousness he has to achieve in order to extemporise lyrics. But also, they were literally locked in the Queen Elizabeth Hall!

When they emerged from the dressing room after the interview, the band and their entourage had disappeared! Hermán, John and his friends walked out of the auditorium to the main entrance. The premises was deserted, and all the doors were padlocked. The party marched backstage again, and yelled out in the hope that we would attract the attention of a member of the night staff. Fortunately, someone responded quite quickly and let them out of a back door.

John and friends walked Hermán across the River Thames on the new Millennium Bridge to Charing Cross railway station to pick up a cab to his hotel. It was unseasonably cold, and while they were walking over the bridge, John said to Hermán, who was still wearing his extremely sharp stage suit, "I hope you don't catch a chill." Hermán replied: "Don't jinx me man." After an inordinate wait for a taxi, one arrived just in the nick of time to rescue Hermán from the attentions of an inebriated vagrant who had taken a liking to his suit!

Six years after Eddie Palmieri jettisoned the groundbreaking La Perfecta trombones/flute combination (dubbed "trombanga" by his brother Charlie), La Perfecta founder member, percussionist Manny Oquendo, and bassist Andy González revived the trombanga sound with the formation of Libre in 1974. So when Hermán joined Libre in 1979, he contributed towards keeping the trombanga flag flying until the band dropped flute in the mid-'80s following the departure of flutist Dave Valentín. During the interview, John highlights the ironic twist in Hermán's career path, which has now returned him to the roots of trombanga. But firstly, John asks Hermán to outline his understanding of the sonero heritage and his particular contribution to it.

John Child (JIC): Particularly for non-Spanish speakers, who maybe don't appreciate that the skill of a sonero involves improvising lyrics on the spot, could you please give us some explanation about the sonero tradition and what you believe is your unique contribution to the art?

Hermán Olivera (HO): From my belief, the tradition comes from way back in the '20s from soneros in Cuba: Abelardo Barroso, Cheo Marquetti. Later on in the '40s and '50s: Roberto Faz, Orlando Guerra "Cascarita", Miguelito Cuní, Beny Moré, and so on. And from the traditions of Machito and Tito Rodríguez, whom I love, Ismael Rivera, Cheo Feliciano, Héctor Lavoe, Chamaco Ramírez, Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez. They were all tremendous soneros and improvisers: on the spot. To be a sonero, you have to have a very open mind, and a vast knowledge of numbers: music, melodies. I have close to 2000 songs in my head. So lyrics are constantly in my head; lyrics and melodies. And I read a lot. You've got to have a good vocabulary for rhyming. You have got to have a sense of rhyme and poetry. Read poetry. So from my personal experience as a singer, what I bring to the genre when I go up to perform is I that will sing the head of the tune as it is every night. But when it comes to the coro/soneo - when it comes to the improvising - I don't sing the same thing every night. Whatever you hear I've recorded on record, is on record. I change lyrics every night. It all depends on how I feel. Being an improviser, a sonero, when a subject comes up, you've got to be able to sing about that subject.

JIC: You mentioned several generations of soneros there. Among those you mentioned, are there any that made a particular impact on you?

HO: I have a little bit of each. The person who most inspired me to sing is Héctor Lavoe. Cheo Feliciano, Ismael Rivera and Chamaco Ramírez are three great Puerto Rican singers who also captivated me and inspired me to be a singer.

JIC: What particular features of those soneros were important to you?

HO: Ismael Rivera was El Sonero Mayor, as Beny Moré baptised him. Very rhythmical and spontaneous. Very hip. Very eloquent in his improvisations. Cheo Feliciano: very eloquent; very suave; very fast. Héctor Lavoe: the voice; the phrasings; the soulfulness. Chamaco Ramírez: the street; and his phrasing and ingenuity to be able to place the inspiraciones at the right moment. He was very street, not so refined. I could relate to him very much, being a city boy. Of all the singers I've mentioned, I have a little bit of each of them. I'm like a fusion of all those guys. I take a little bit here, a little bit there. Whatever I can use, I take.

JIC: But you're more than the sum of all those ingredients, aren't you? You add something that is distinctly you.

HO: Oh yeah, it's my own natural style because of all the years of experience. I've been doing this for 27 years, and I'm still learning to sing now. You learn something more and more every day. I never stop reading and learning; and I listen to music constantly.

JIC: You were saying that you sing something different every night. Do you remember what you sing? Does it carry over from performance to performance?

HO: No.

JIC: It's just purely of the moment.

HO: It's purely at the moment. Right now, if you asked me what did you improvise tonight. I can't even remember what I did. I know one of my inspiraciones was telling a story that I've been gone for a week, and that I've been missing my wife and kids, and so on. I really don't know what I'm going to improvise at the moment.

JIC: You're clearly not one of these improvisers who has lots of stock phrases you reuse?

HO: No, no, no. I may get comfortable with one inspiration that I sorta like, and I may throw it in sometimes when I'm preparing something else that's coming behind it. Don't forget, this is a split second type of thing. Your mind has to be very open. Your mind has to be clicking constantly about what what you're going to improvise. Like a computer. I don't know what I'm going to sing. I just know it better be right.

JIC: We've set the scene. Now let's go back to the very beginning. Tell me about your origins and upbringing in New Jersey?

HO: I'm of Puerto Rican descent. My mother and father are from Maricao, Puerto Rico, which is a small town on the south western coast by Mayagüez. I was born in Newark, New Jersey, on January 30th, 1959. I still reside in Newark. I'm a native New Yorker. I started singing with little local groups at the age of 15. I sang with various groups: La Justicia, La Sonica (where I met Jimmy Bosch) and Conjunto Caramelo. I did little club dates, bars, weddings, baptisms; whatever was going on. If ever there was a party, we were working.

JIC: Can we just look in a bit more detail at your early career? Was the name La Justicia in any way influenced by Eddie Palmieri's song and album title?

HO: No, that was just a name somebody picked out.

JIC: I understand La Justicia was re-launched as La Sonica.

HO: No, La Justicia was La Justicia. I left La Justicia, and then I went with La Sonica. And in La Sonica, we picked up Jimmy Bosch. And there was also Edwin Bonilla, who became the timbalero for Gloria Estefan, and the conguero Roberto Carrero, who later played with me in Conjunto Libre. And then from La Sonica, I went back to La Justicia, but they had changed the name to Conjunto Caramelo. La Sonica disbanded, and I took the leader with me, Alex Vélez, who played piano with the group.

JIC: Are you still in touch with Edwin Bonilla?

HO: Yes, I am.

JIC: He's recently released a couple of típico albums on SAR (Edwin y su Son '99 and Soy La Candela '02).

HO: Yes, very good. We get to talk on the phone. Not that much, but every couple of months. I give him a ring, or he gives me a ring. And we run into each other on tours. He's been performing with Cachao. I ran into him at the Hollywood Bowl and in Toulouse.

JIC: Tell me the story of how you hooked-up with Libre?

HO: I was playing at a dance with Conjunto Caramelo in Jersey City. We were opening up for Ismael Rivera, Bobby Rodríguez y La Nueva Compañia and Conjunto Libre. And it was at that dance, where I met Manny Oquendo, Andy González and Pupy Cantor, who approached me about joining the group. Because they needed another singer. They worked with two singers. Tempo Alomar had gone on to Puerto Rico. So, I gave them my phone number, and the rest was history, man.

JIC: The first time I saw you perform was with Libre at the now defunct Village Gate in 1987. Ray Barretto's band was on the same bill, and Jimmy Bosch changed costume between sets to play with both bands. Tell me what it was like serving in what Jimmy has called "the university of Manny Oquendo and Andy González"?

HO: Libre were very very hot at the time I went to perform with them. As you well know, it was a musician's band. Manny Oquendo, Andy González, I respect them both. Giants. Going to sing in that group was a very, very important step for me in going forward. Because that's where I honed my style. I was there for 11 plus years. That's where I learned what I had to learn. I started listening to more music; other music that I hadn't opened my ears to. I learned to play güiro, maracas, clave. Learned how to dance in clave. It was a hell of a school for me.

JIC: You did more than one stint with the band, didn't you?

HO: Yeah, I did about 10 years straight. But within those 10 years I would freelance. When Libre wasn't working, I would work with Ray Barretto. I would work with so and so. Do a little coro for Héctor Lavoe.

JIC: From my research, you started with Ray Barretto in '82, after Ray de la Paz left.

HO: Yeah, right. After Ray de la Paz left. Ray had some gigs and he didn't have a singer. He put a band together, and I came in as a freelance singer. He would bring in Orlando Watusi to sing with me, too. I didn't get to record with him, but I did quite a few gigs with him. That's what I can recall from that era.

JIC: When was the last time you worked with him? Quite a long time ago?

HO: Phew. I really don't remember. It's been that long.

JIC: During your time with Libre, in my view, you effectively made five albums: Increible (1981 on Salsoul), Ritmo, Sonido y Estilo (1983 on Montuno), Ahora (1994 on AMO), On The Move! (Muevete!) (1996 on Milestone) and Los New Yorkiños (2000 on Milestone). I understand you originally did the lead vocals on their most recent release, Los New Yorkiños, way back in 1991.

HO: Right.

JIC: Your lead vocals got replaced by Jorge Maldonado and Xiomara Lougart. What's the story there?

HO: Well, you know, I had left the group. I did about 10 years, and I left for about four years, and then came back. When I came back in, Frankie Vázquez was in the band. I recorded Live in Bimbo's (On The Move! (Muevete!)) in San Francisco. But then I left again, with some music recorded in the can. They released one (Ahora), and the other, they erased my voice. But it's exactly the same thing. They took my tracks, and the singer sang exactly the same inspiraciones and everything I had done.

JIC: And you didn't get a credit for the coro vocals.

HO: It's OK. It's all right.

JIC: Moving along with your career story. In 1988 you shared lead vocals on what I regard as a notable album, La Exclusiva on Marcando, by the band of the same name. There were some guys involved with the band, who previously worked with Conjunto Crema, who issued two albums on SAR (Roberto Torres presenta al...Conjunto Crema '80 and La Masacre Musical '82).

HO: Right, in that album, those who came in with us from Conjunto Crema were Miguel Santiago, who's a childhood friend of mine, on trumpet; my compadre Marcus Acevedo on bongo; and a good friend of mine, Marcos Quintanilla, who plays bass with Johnny Pacheco. He also owns a studio, which is called Blackbean Studio in Jersey, and he records a lot of music in different genres. That album was produced by a good friend of mine from Miami, Fernando R. Pestana, who, I believe, co-wrote some tunes on that album too.

JIC: He's credited as the leader and coro singer.

HO: Right, exactly. That was a good album man.

JIC: It was a bloody good album.

HO: I just got a call from Fernando in Miami, that they are trying to release it on CD. It's never been released on CD.

JIC: For me, one of the tracks that really stood out was your interpretation of Chucho Valdés' "Xiomara," arranged by Oscar Hernández.

HO: Yeah, a very good tune.

JIC: If I'm not mistaken, you redid exactly the same arrangement on the current Johnny Polanco y su Conjunto Amistad album Pa'l Bailador (2001 on Morrowland).

HO: Yes. When I'm not working with Eddie, I go out of town to do solo gigs. Johnny Polanco's is the orchestra that accompanies me all through the West Coast. They are very hot. They work all the time. They also accompany Ray de la Paz and Tito Nieves. So, they were recording a new album. "Xiomara" is in my book. So Johnny said: "Man, I'd like to re-record this. I'd really like to do this over again." So I said: "Well, do it. If you've gotta do it, let's do it. Whatever." So he recorded it; and it's being played, and it's like number one in Los Angeles. People really dig it. It's a hot arrangement, you know what I mean? What can I say: history repeats itself.

JIC: And then in '93, you made your only solo album to date (Chequea La Mercancia on Dis-Sal), again with a band also called La Exclusiva.

HO: Fernando Pestana produced it, and he wrote the majority of the songs on that album. That was a solo attempt. I got a lot of work out of the album, but it didn't make any noise. I still have some of the songs in my book. I do them once in a while. It was a good experience. It just didn't have any promotion behind it, and all the things that go with the marketing. It had no money; no backing. That was that.

JIC: Chequea La Mercancia included an affectionate medley of boleros in tribute to Tito Rodríguez, "Recordando a Tito Rodríguez." Can you tell me how significant he is to you?

HO: Tito Rodríguez is a giant. Tito Rodríguez is a singer I also emulate. He was like the Frank Sinatra of our genre. He is also in the category of soneros I named before. Machito and Tito Rodríguez are at the top of that list. Two giants.

JIC: Your current governor, Eddie Palmieri, worked with Tito Rodríguez.

HO: Of course, he worked with Tito Rodríguez.

JIC: Eddie's on record as having described Tito Rodríguez as El Sonero Mayor.

HO: Yeah, yeah. He was tremendous. Elegantly dressed, always very sharp. Yes, I emulate him a lot.

JIC: Were La Exclusiva a gigging band?

HO: Yes, we worked for some time. The group worked quite a bit. Then the group kinda split up because Fernando moved to Florida. But he put a band together out there, and then he would call me. And I would fly down, like every month, and do five or six shows. I was singing "Xiomara" and the stuff on my solo album.

JIC: Did you know anything about Marcos Quintanilla's group Conjunto Crema?

HO: Yeah, sure. I'm from New Jersey, and they were from New Jersey too. He's from Union City. Some of my friends played with Conjunto Crema, and I used to go to their rehearsals. And when they were working, and I wasn't, I sometimes hung out with them.

JIC: Your former colleague from Conjunto Caramelo, Alex Vélez, played on Conjunto Crema's second album La Masacre Musical .

HO: Alex Vélez played piano on there. Miguel Santiago played trumpet on there. My compadre, Wilmer Vega, played congas on there. My other compadre, the bongo player Marcus Acevedo, also played on there.

JIC: Is Alex Vélez still active?

HO: I believe so; he still plays the piano. I haven't heard from him for quite a few years.

JIC: The guy who shared lead vocals with you on the La Exclusiva album, Roberto Mier. He was on those two Conjunto Crema albums.

HO: Right.

JIC: What's he up to these days?

HO: I haven't heard from him in quite a few years. He's not in the business anymore. I know he got married, and I believe he owns a store.

JIC: Also during the '90s, you worked on a couple of all-star albums. There was Valdésa Records Presenta Vol. l: Salsa Sudada (1990) and Evoluciónes del Son by the Rikoson All Stars (1996 on Catman). Anything you want to share about these projects?

HO: Salsa Sudada was done with a gentleman from Colombia, Victor Raúl, also known as "Patillas". Produced and arranged by Isidro Infante. It was a tremendous pleasure to share the bill with Yayo El Indio, Adalberto Santiago, Melcochita, Papaíto, who's no longer with us. Neither is Yayo El Indio. It was quite an exciting experience.

JIC: And what about the Rikoson All Stars?

HO: Rikoson was fun too. That was a friend of mine named Lino Iglesias, who wrote most of the songs on the album. Again, we didn't have luck with that either. But I had a great time doing the two songs that I did there, sharing the bill with my brother Luisito Ayala and Yannét Sól. Lino even sang a tune on there. He's a tremendous composer. A lot of ideas. It was like an album done with friends.

JIC: Then, on another trip to New York in '90, I stumbled upon you singing with Cruz Control. I got on Cruz Control's mailing list, and you seemed to sing lead vocals with them for quite a while.

HO: Yeah. As a matter of fact, I still work with them every once in a while. Ray Cruz is a very good friend of mine. Ray Cruz comes from back in the days of Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz. He's a drummer. I've been working with them for quite a few years. I share the bill there with Luisito Ayala. I didn't record lead vocals on the album (Cruz Control '97 on Eva Records) because of contractual reasons, but I did coro with them. They do some originals, but they do a lot of cover tunes from the '60s; a lot of Eddie's stuff. Good music. They do a lot of society gigs.

JIC: During your break from Libre, you hooked-up with the legendary Cachao.

HO: Oh yeah.

JIC: How did that happen?

HO: My encounter with Cachao started one night when they did The Night of the Basses at the now defunct Village Gate. It was Andy González, Bobby Rodríguez, the bass playing giant, and Cachao. And then we did a few gigs where Cachao was our special invited guest. We did some gigs in Atlanta. We became friends. And the next thing, I got a call from his office to ask if I would like to do a few things. I said: "Sure." Like, hey, who wouldn't? He's a giant, a legend. It was an immense pleasure to share the stage with him. I was very flattered that he called me to work with him. I've worked with him quite a lot now. As a matter of fact, they called me to work this weekend: May 24th/25th. They're at B. B. King's in New York City, Friday and Saturday. But I told them that I was out of town.

JIC: It's a shame you haven't recorded with Cachao.

HO: Yeah, I know. Maybe somewhere down the stretch.

JIC: And also during that period, you started working with Johnny Pacheco?

HO: Oh yeah.

JIC: Had you completely done with Barretto by that stage?

HO: Yes, yes, yes.

JIC: And again, you haven't recorded yet with Pacheco as a lead singer. You just did coro on one track of his '93 ¡Sima! on Fania.

HO: I joined his Tumbao Añejo in '92. I was out of work, and Johnny called me. And to tell the truth, Johnny helped me immensely in my career, even though I haven't recorded with him. He helped me with discipline. I still work with him now and again. I do the Fania All Stars with him. We remain very close.

JIC: Someone I got to know, who sadly died a couple of years ago, who worked with Pacheco, was Martín Arroyo. Were you in the band at the same time as him?

HO: No, but I knew Martín Arroyo very well. We had worked together in various groups. A very fine gentleman and a tremendous talent. It was too early for him to go, but that's the way life is.

JIC: Before we get on to talking about how you hooked-up with Eddie Palmieri, you worked on Jimmy Bosch's first two solo projects: Soneando Trombón '98 and Salsa Dura '99, both on the now defunct RykoLatino label.

HO: Oh yeah.

JIC: Tell me about that experience?

HO: Well, you know Jimmy and I go way back to La Sonica. You're talking about, like 1977. We were also with Libre for many years. We've always worked together. I was very excited and flattered when he asked me to do his first album. I shared vocals there with Frankie Vázquez; with the late, great Pete "El Conde" Rodríguez; and with Jimmy Sabater. That was a great album. And recorded right on the spot. There was no writing. Everything you hear on there was improvised. Naturally, there were arrangements for the headings of the songs, but when it got to the coro and soneo, everything was improvised man. Not only me, but Frankie, Pete. Everybody that sang on there improvised. It came out great. A great album. His second album: the same thing. Jimmy's a salsa dura die-hard. He's a warrior. Very good music, and I back him a hundred percent. He's my bandstand brother.

JIC: Yes, I've had the privilege of interviewing Jimmy. Now, let's move up to how you linked with Eddie? How did all that start?

HO: Well, with Eddie I linked-up also in '92 sometime. I was still with Pacheco, and I was also doing freelance. So I got a call to do Eddie's gig. And at that time, India was still around. So I would sing one or two songs, and do coro. Because they were doing their new album Llegó La India...Via Eddie Palmieri (1992 on RMM's Soho Latino label). And Ismael Quintana would also be on the bill. And everything just kept evolving, evolving. India went her way; Ismael went his way. And the doors just kept opening man, until today. We've made history together. Working with Eddie has been marvellous man. It's like a dream come true for me to share a stage with Eddie. Eddie has been very instrumental, very generous. Taught me a lot about being a bandleader; about being a singer; about being a person. Musically he's very, very deep. Eddie has enabled me to go to many, many countries. I've been around the world with Eddie. I thank him and I thank the Lord for putting him in my path. He has guided me in my career. He's my mentor and adviser.

JIC: It occurred to me that when you were with Libre, you were keeping the trombanga faith. And here you are again, returning to the La Perfecta trombanga sound with Eddie, its co-originator.

HO: Yeah, it's great man. We just recorded a new album (La Perfecta II '02 on Concord Picante). People have been waiting for this. We've been touring all over the place. People have been going crazy for this, like everywhere: United States, South and Central America, Europe. Eddie started this, you know what I mean? It's starting a new revolution. It's fresh. Even though the tunes were done 40 years ago. I feel very blessed to be on this album. The album sounds great.

JIC: Bearing in mind that you are now interpreting songs that are so closely associated with the original La Perfecta, performed by the likes of Ismael Quintana ("El Molestoso" from El Molestoso Vol. II '63 on Alegre; "Tu Tu Ta Ta" from Echando Pa'lante (Straight Ahead) '64 on Tico; "Cuídate Compay" from Azucar Pa' Ti (Sugar For You) '65 on Tico; and "Tirándote Flores" from Molasses '66 on Tico) and Cheo Feliciano ("Ay Qué Rico" from Champagne '68 on Tico). How have you found the daunting task of tackling these tunes.

HO: I put my stamp on it now. I respect Ismael Quintana and Cheo Feliciano. But I go into the studio with a fresh mind and a fresh way of thinking. I go in to put my stamp on it. Bang, with my own improvisations. My own twisting and turning of notes. Especially in the inspiraciones. "Tirándote Flores" has a story to it now. "Tu Tu Ta Ta" also. I'm improvising; I'm creating. It's not like I went in there to copy or emulate Cheo. No, no, no. I went in there with a blank mind. I said: "Look, this is going to be me now. This is it. Now is Hermán Olivera's time."

Lise Husebo (LH): What is your main inspiration when you go in to record? What is it that really comes out?

HO: My spirit. My natural, natural spirit is what comes out. That's what speaks. It's my spirit. I don't have to think about it. I don't think about these things. I just go in, and I go to work, and I just attack. It's not premeditated. Nothing's written.

JIC: Do you give a spiritual explanation to it? When you hear about people who improvise, they often talk about a force higher than themselves that's actually working through them.

HO: Yes, at times I feel that way. Because it gets to point where I get into the zone. I can see thousands of people, and I don't see anybody. All I see is the microphone, and everything is like dim. I see a light. And I go into the zone. And I fall right into the zone. I'm very, very, very focused. And that's what I look forward to. Night after night.

JIC: And you hit it every night?


JIC: You do? That's amazing. Are there any devices you use to make sure you hit it? Or does it just happen?

HO: I focus man. I have to focus. I don't need any contraptions. I just focus man. I try to focus, and I try to go into the zone. So I'm able to perform. Able to improvise. To vocalise. To tell stories. I may be looking at you and saying: "How you doing?" When in fact I'm looking right through you. I don't know, it's the Man upstairs. I've got Him to thank for that.

JIC: You do seem to give a sort of religious interpretation of it; don't you? Do you feel it's to do with God or...?

HO: I don't know, it's a high man. It's a natural high. It's like the best high I've ever had.

JIC: You don't feel that it's "Hermán" that's originating it?

HO: It just happens. I look forward to it. I look forward to going on stage and to get into that zone. Sometimes I have a little problem getting into the zone. But I have to leave everything behind. Whatever I'm going through in my personal life, I leave that once I climb onto the stage.

JIC: The next question may touch onto a dodgy area, and you may not want to get into it. You can do that naturally, you don't have to use anything?

HO: I don't do drugs. I don't drink. I don't smoke cigarettes.

JIC: Moving back to your career path. How and when did you link up with Mario Grillo and the Machito Orchestra?

HO: Wow, that's heavy. 1996. I was performing my stint back with Libre. The little time I was with them, I was performing at Broadway 96, called the Latin Quarter. I was walking down the stairs to get some air, and up the stairs was walking Mario Grillo, Machito's son. I got to meet Machito in the '80s when I was in New York. He says to me: "You're the guy I'm looking for." he says: "I got three gigs in Helsinki, Finland, and I think you're the one I need." Mario and I, we had a pretty good friendship. We ran into each other quite a few times, and conversed and whatnot. And it all started there. We went to Finland. I had about four months to get ready for that. I learned 20/25 songs. We did the concerts, and I've been working with him ever since. Every time I get the chance, I still perform with Mario. It's very exciting. We play his father's book. It's a big band: four trumpets, four saxes, four trombones; mambo, heavy boleros. When I do that book, it takes me back to the '50s man. You're sharp, well dressed. You've got this band behind you. It's like Frank Sinatra and Count Basie, but in our genre.

JIC: How does the discipline of working in a big band format, which you also did with the Tito Puente/Eddie Palmieri collaboration (Masterpiece / Obra Maestra '00 on RMM), compare to a lot of work you do, which is in smaller units?

HO: The smaller units are a little more funky. They're loose and funky. In the big band format, I always have to be on my Ps and Qs. Very focused. Wherever I'm at, I can sing with a trio, with a quartet. I was just a special invited guest for the Carnegie Hall jazz band, back in November (2001). That was tremendous. I always prepare myself. I'm always studying to see how I can better myself to sing in these different ensembles.

JIC: To continue talking about your career. During 2000 you featured on several releases, including two albums by Grupo Caribe (Son De Melaza and Ritmo Nativo on CMS Records) and the first album by the Conga Kings (Candido, Patato and Giovanni Hidalgo) on Chesky. In fact you sang on five tracks on that album. Can you tell me something about these projects?

HO: Sure. Grupo Caribe is a group whose musical director is Sergio Rivera, who used to play in Cruz Control. Also there is José Madera, a tremendous arranger, who is a Machito/Tito Puente alumnus. Son of Pin Madera, who was one of the saxophonists with the Machito Orchestra. Also Louie Bauzo, who plays percussion. Luisito Ayala is the singer for the group. I've done coro on their albums. On the new release, I'll be singing three songs. I just came out of the studio from recording.

JIC: Oh, they have a third album coming out.

HO: They have a third one coming out. It's not finished yet. I was the first one to go in. I also did the background vocals with Ray Viera, who does background vocals on the La Perfecta II album. He's the lead singer for Johnny Pacheco.

JIC: And he's got a solo album out (Aqui Esta '02 on AP Productions).

HO: Yeah, and a solo album out. Exactly. And so on the new album, I'll be singing three tracks, on the Conga Kings. I was sleeping; it was late one night, man. It was about one o'clock in the morning, and the phone rings. It was Nelson González, the tres player. He says: "There's a recording tomorrow. You wanna go? We need another coro singer." I said: "Hey, work is work." You know what I mean? Sometimes on productions I do percussion work: maracas, clave, güiro, I do coro. So I say: "Great." So I go with the idea that I'm going to do coro. So I get there, and they're recording in this church, because of the acoustics. Everything is live. The actor Matt Dillon is there. Everybody is hanging out. So I see Ray Santos, the arranger. I see no singer. And everybody's doing these tunes off the top of their heads. "Let's do this one. Let's do that." And I started singing. And he says: "Improvise this." And he then says: "All right, let's record it." After the first one, he said: "Listen. Sing." So all the tunes on there were improvised. We just picked them out. Let's do "Avisale A Mi Contrario". Let's do "Nagüe". Let's do this. Let's do that. That's what came out. I sat in the middle with a big mike, like in the old days, and everybody's around. And that's how we recorded that album. Very exciting. On the spot. No rehearsal, no nothing.

LH: There must be a lot of confidence between you. A lot of pressure must be involved working together, but it sounds as if you all remain friends.

HO: In New York, we basically all know each other. We've all worked with each other. So when they call you, it's like: "Wow, let's go." You've got to be ready for whatever's going to happen. I have to tell you that you have to come in with a very open mind. Everything was on the spot. You can't walk in with any hang-ups. You've got to come in, sit down, focus. The mike is there. Let's go; let's do this. And it worked out beautifully. I recorded for two days. You go in there, and you get into that type of atmosphere and situation. When you walk out of there, you're ready for anything.

JIC: Talking of Nelson González. The following year you contributed lead vocals to a couple of cuts on his album Pa' Los Treseros (2001 on Qbadisc).

HO: Oh, yes, yes, yes. My association with Nelson González goes back to Conjunto Libre, when he used to do stints in and out. When he was living in Puerto Rico, he would come to New York. We worked together with many other artists through the years, and I've also worked with his group. I was quite flattered that he called me to do two numbers on his album as a lead vocalist. Very nice album. Swinging album. Typical. Criollo.

JIC: I hear tell that you've started gigging with your own band in New York.

HO: Well, yes. I have a group, Hermán Olivera y sus Amigos, which is Hermán Olivera and his Friends. And I do a lot of society gigs; private parties and presentations. I'll do a few club dates here and there. My compadre, Wilmer Vega, plays in my Friends group. There are no plans to record. The record business is very, very dismal. People downloading and pirating records. I don't have anything to prove to anybody by being a leader, or to have a record, or whatever. I enjoy my job and what I'm doing with Eddie. I'm very happy to be here. I'm also a soloist and a featured artist. I don't have a hang-up about being a bandleader right now. I just need health to keep performing. But, yes, we have the group.

JIC: It's a bit like the old tradition in New York. If, say, you think back to the '60s, you had people like Willie Torres, Chivirico Dávila, Rudy Calzado and so forth...

HO: Right.

JIC: ...who weren't like bandleaders in their own right at the time. But they were being hired by leading bandleaders to provide lead vocals. Weren't they? You're very much in that tradition.

HO: Exactly. Because I know a lot of music, and I understand the music I'm singing. I know a lot of orchestra's books. The Machito book; The Tito Rodríguez book; the Ismael Rivera book; the Cheo Feliciano book. All these singers, like Beny Moré. I know a vast repertoire of songs. So I can sing guarachas, boleros, cha-cha-chas, bomba, plena. If the opportunity comes to record as a soloist; yes, I would like to record. But, it would have to be under my terms. I'm not going to sing for commercialisation. I have to sing in my line. Pick out the songs, the arrangements; the way I want them done.

JIC: So when you spoke earlier about having your own book, that had things like "Xiomara" in it. It would be with your Amigos that you would perform that sort of material.

HO: Right, right. I have tunes that I have popularised with different groups. Music I recorded with Libre; some Eddie stuff; my stuff. I'll do some cover tunes of Héctor Lavoe, Ismael Rivera, Cheo Feliciano, Tito Rodríguez, Machito, as a tribute in honour to them.

JIC: Possibly this is part of the same dismal recording story you mentioned. I understand that you, Frankie Vázquez and Ray de la Paz recorded for Atlantic Records with Oscar Hernández.

HO: Oh, yes. It's called the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. A gentleman by the name of Aaron Levinson from Philadelphia, who produced Jimmy Bosch's records, got this project going with Atlantic Records. He chose Ray de la Paz, Frankie Vázquez and myself as the featured singers. We did cover tunes from the '70s, with brand new arrangements. Brand new dressing. We even changed some of the coros around. And brand new improvisations. And Jimmy Sabater also did a new rendition of "Mama Guela". Very, very nice album. Very nicely done. Musical director: Oscar Hernández. Some arrangements by Oscar Hernández, Gil L and Angel Fernández. Waiting for it to be released, but don't know when.

JIC: I heard a story that there were problems with Atlantic.

HO: I think so, I'm not sure. I think that department folded-up. I don't know what happened. Aaron is trying to shop it around. I really don't know the story because I haven't spoken to Aaron.

JIC: It's in the can.

HO: It's in the can. It's recorded.

JIC: OK. This might be an opportunity to ask you about future projects. You've already told us about the new Grupo Caribe project. Are there any others in the pipeline?

HO: Just what's coming up is the Grupo Caribe. I've done three vocal tracks, and now the other singers will be coming in to do their part. To be released this year. I just ask the Lord to give me health and strength in my voice, so I can keep working. Eddie has a lot of work. We finish this three date tour in the UK tomorrow in Manchester. We start in Italy. We'll be going there one day. Then we're off to Miami Tuesday, to do a taping of a live TV show, Don Francisco, which is watched by more than 30 million Latinos world-wide. It's a heavy three hour variety show. From there, we fly to Dallas, Texas. From there to Los Angeles, Oakland, San Mateo. Then we're home for two days. Then we go to Euro Disney in Paris for one day. And from there, we fly straight to Chicago. So we've got a lot of work from here to August. I mean: WE'RE NON-STOP.

JIC: This La Perfecta II really seems to have struck a chord. I heard enthusiastic feedback from New York about the early performances. Are you aware of how Eddie is thinking? Is there likely to be more La Perfecta II?

HO: Oh, yes, yes, yes. We're going to do some more albums with this. This is really going somewhere. It's struck a chord, man. Like you said. Before the holidays, we did a whole week in Birdland. The place was packed. We did the Conga Room in Los Angeles. We're doing the Conga Room again next Friday. We've done quite a few shows. The reaction from the people is tremendous. The record is being played. We just celebrated Eddie's 40 years in music in Puerto Rico, with Lalo Rodríguez, Ismael Quintana and myself. La Perfecta is a fun book. I enjoy singing this book. I grew up listening to most of this music. It's a dream come true. I'm enjoying every minute of it man. He's a gentleman on the stage. A gentleman and a scholar. He is the Sun Of Latin Music . He lets everybody express themselves. Everybody has a say. The group is just eight guys. But it's a powerhouse band. Because the arrangements are made to dance. There's lots of funk, and a lot of spunk, man. A lot of sabor. A lot of rhythm. You know? Dance music.

JIC: You're no stranger to British shores. You've been here a number of times since 1996 when you first came over here with Libre. You worked with the London-based bands La Clave and Tumbaito, as well as various gigs with Eddie, including a national tour in 1999. How do you find the audiences in the UK?

HO: They're very enthusiastic. Very outgoing. We just did a show last night in Brighton, which was very exciting. It reminded me of where I live out in New Jersey. It had a seashore. I thought I was in Atlantic City or Seaside Heights. Here at the Queen Elizabeth Hall; we've been here three times. And you saw the reaction of the crowd. Tomorrow we're headed towards Manchester. When we come to England, we're like the Rolling Stones of salsa. We're like the Beatles of salsa. We did a tour here in '99. We did like 11 cities. And in the Masterpiece album, Eddie wrote a song, which I sing, which is dedicated to England. It's called "Yambú Pa' Inglaterra". And in there I mention that my voice is listened to everywhere from Leeds to Birmingham, to Liverpool, to Bristol. The Glastonbury Festival. Even Queen Elizabeth has to dance to this. To all my people in London; my people in Manchester. So I mention all these bits and pieces in my improvisations, because they've been very perceptive towards me and the band every time I've come to England. The people have been very respectful and very good to me. I have no other choice, but to come here in tip top shape, so I can give them the best, and continue giving England the best.

JIC: Do you still work with your "bandstand brother" Jimmy Bosch?

HO: Jimmy Bosch came with La Perfecta II to Switzerland, to the Bern Jazz Festival. So he's also been contributing here. He also did the big concert with us in Puerto Rico. He'll be doing the TV show on Tuesday.

JIC: As a leader?

HO: No, no, no. He's been performing with La Perfecta II in the trombone section with Reinaldo Jorge.

JIC: That's incredible, because when I was watching the band tonight, I thought Jimmy should be there.

HO: Yes, he's a perfect element for that. He's been doing quite a few gigs. We did the Bern Jazz Festival together. That was exciting. Every time we share the stage together, it's quite exciting.

JIC: Because if ever a man was Barry Rogers incarnate, it's Jimmy. Isn't it?

HO: Yeah, right. Jimmy has a lot of soul man. Very spiritual. Very soulful trombonist. Hard. Driving. Street. Spontaneous. Just like yours truly. (Laughter)

JIC: Yes, exactly!

HO: We're like carbon copies. He's a trombonist. I'm a vocalist. We complement each other. He's a very exciting player.

JIC: I think I've done for now. Unless there's anything else you want to add?

HO: Wooo, John. It's been a tremendous pleasure here with you.

JIC: Now we've got the task of getting you to your hotel...

Very special thanks to David Barton for inspiring and facilitating my meeting with Hermán Olivera.

For the complete Hermán Olivera discographic profile, click here.

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