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Profile of the much respected vocalist and sonero Hermán Olivera.

by John Child (

Olivera, Hermán

(b 30 Jan. '59, Newark, New Jersey, USA; of Puerto Rican parentage) In demand sonero and hand percussionist. Grew up listening to Cuarteto Mayarí, Felipe Rodríguez, Tito Rodríguez, Machito, Ismael Rivera, Cortijo y su Combo, Bobby Capo, among others. Decided at age nine to pursue a musical career after seeing NYC Latin bands perform at local festivals. He tried to master the guitar and trombone, but discovered that singing and memorising lyrics was his forte. His influences incl. soneros Héctor Lavoe, Ismael Rivera, Cheo Feliciano, Chamaco Ramírez, Tito Rodríguez, Machito and Beny Moré, and the bolero exponents Vicentico Valdés, Gilberto Monroig, Santos Colón and La Lupe.

He made his pro debut with La Justicia '75, playing at local schools, weddings, clubs, etc. He left La Justicia to join La Sonica, a two trombone group featuring trombonist Jimmy Bosch (b 18 Oct. '59, Hoboken NJ), timbalero Edwin Bonilla and conguero Roberto Carrero, which lasted two or three years before disbanding. Then he returned to La Justicia, renamed Conjunto Caramelo, together with La Sonica's former director/pianist Alex Vélez.

Hermán's career changed direction the night Caramelo opened at a gig featuring Bobby Rodríguez y La Nueva Compañia, Ismael Rivera and Libre at St. Bridges Church, Jersey City. Caramelo were on form that night, witnessed by Libre's triumvirate of Manny Oquendo, Andy and Jerry González. Libre's sole lead singer, Tony "Pupy Cantor" Torres, took Hermán's phone number because the group had a vacancy for a second vocalist. A few months later, a call from Andy resulted in Hermán's debut gig with Libre at the Bronx's La Epoca on 29 Sept. '79.

He made his recording debut with Libre, sharing lead vocals with Pupy on Increible '81 on Salsoul. They switched to Montuno for Ritmo, Sonido y Estilo '83, featuring Hermán's swinging interpretation of the classic "Que Humanidad", co-written by the incredibly prolific Cuban composer Ñico Saquito (1902-1982). Meanwhile Hermán started freelancing with bandleaders such as Ray Barretto (following Ray de la Paz's departure in '82); though, to date, he has not recorded with him.

In '88 Hermán shared lead vocals with former Conjunto Crema singer Roberto "Dofy" Mier on La Exclusiva on Marcando by the band of the same name, co-led by bassist Marcos Quintanilla, who directed Conjunto Crema in the early '80s. Hermán shone on Oscar Hernández's arrangement of Chucho Valdés' "Xiomara", which he reprised on Pa'l Bailador '01 on Morrowland by Johnny Polanco y su Conjunto Amistad. He sang lead vocals on two tracks of Valdésa Records Presenta Vol. l: Salsa Sudada '90 (reissued on Osagaji), an all-star album featuring Papaíto (1923-2000), Melcochita, Adalberto Santiago, Yayo El Indio (c 1919-2000), Isidro Infante and others.

Libre organised their own sessions '91, half of which were initially issued as Ahora on the small AMO label '94, and then reissued under the same title on Milestone. The rest of the '91 sessions surfaced on Los New Yorkiños '00 on Milestone with Hermán's original lead vocals substituted by Jorge Maldonado and Xiomara Lougart (on one track). Although his coro vocals survived, they were not credited. Also in '91, Hermán and other Libre personnel performed on "Descarga de Turre", a track on Steve Turre's Right There on Antilles.

During a break from Libre beginning in '91, Hermán worked with Cruz Control, a swinging outfit co-led by percussionist Ray Cruz and pianist Sergio Rivera (he sang coro on Cruz Control '97 on Eva Records); Johnny Pacheco (he sang coro on one track of Johnny's ¡Sima! '93 on Fania); and appeared in Cachao's Mambo & Descarga concerts of '92-3 and Andy García's feature length documentary on Cachao: Cachao: Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos '92. His solo debut, Chequea La Mercancia '93 on Dis-Sal, accompanied by La Exclusiva, was a flop. Hermán cites lack of promotion as the reason, though it helped him get gigs.

Hermán returned to Libre '95 to share lead vocals with Frankie Vázquez (b 6 Jan. '58, Guayama, Puerto Rico). Both figured in the band's second visit to London (at The Forum, 27 Oct. '96), which marked Hermán's UK debut, and on their Milestone follow-up On The Move! (Muevete!) '96 recorded live at Bimbo's 365 Club, San Francisco, May '96.

He shared lead vocals on Evoluciónes del Son '96 on Catman by Rikoson All Stars. He featured on Jimmy Bosch's bandleading debut Soneando Trombón '98 (four tracks) and follow-up Salsa Dura '99 (three cuts), both on the now defunct RykoLatino label. He donated his time and talent as a coro singer to the CD and video Chucho Valdés Live '98 on RMM (recorded 17 Oct. '96 at the Hostos Community College Arts & Culture Center) to raise money for the Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center. After working with Eddie Palmieri since '92, he made his recording debut with the bandleader on El Rumbero del Piano '98 (five tracks), followed by Eddie Palmieri & Friends Live! '99 (on a stunning 12:30 minute version of "Palo Pa Rumba") and Masterpiece / Obra Maestra '00 (with Tito Puente; Hermán features on four tracks), all on RMM, and La Perfecta II '02 on Concord Picante (five cuts).

During '00 he provided coro vocals to Grupo Caribe's Son De Melaza and Ritmo Nativo on CMS Records, and sang lead vocals on five tracks of The Conga Kings on Chesky by Candido, Patato and Giovanni Hidalgo. The following year he contributed lead vocals to two cuts on Pa' Los Treseros '01 on Qbadisc by Nelson González. Recently, he has been gigging with his own band, Hermán Olivera y sus Amigos.

Be sure to read the interview Locked In With Hermán Olivera.

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