“The music that he wrote went all over the world,” says Mike Amadeo, owner of the music shop Casa Amadeo in the Bronx. He is referring, of course, to Rafael Hernández, the 20th century Puerto Rican composer. Hernández himself traveled extensively over the course of his career, with brief stints in México, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Dr. Martin Morán, Director of Teatro SEA, considers “El jibarito”, as Hernández was affectionately known, as the “perfect Latin American composer” for this far-reaching influence, which ranges from his work in Mexican cinema to the Dominican standard, “Linda Quisqueya.”
Yet it is in New York City where the legend of Rafael Hernández maintains a strong, almost mythical footprint—52 years after his death. Of the more than 3,000 songs he composed, several of the most enduring tunes were written here in New York, including the unofficial Puerto Rican anthem, “Lamento borincano,” which is said to have been composed in New York at the music shop he once owned with his sister, Victoria. The aforementioned Mike Amadeo would later purchase the store and he remembers wandering across it as a young man.
Hernández had arrived to the city in 1919, after serving with the 369th Infantry Regiment during World War I. Along with 17 other Puerto Rican musicians, he had played in the famed Harlem Hellfighters Band led by Lt. James Reese Europe. The band is credited with introducing jazz music to audiences throughout Europe. Jazz, however, was just one of the many genres encompassed by Hernández’s prodigious musical output.
The Aguadilla native also formed some of his most successful bands in New York, such as Trio Borinquen and Cuarteto Victoria (named for his sister). He also helped to launch the careers of young singers Myrta Silva and Bobby Capó, in addition to numerous others. Simply put, Hernández was one of the first Puerto Ricans—not the last!—to make his mark in Nueva York or as folklorist Elena Martínez affirms, “Hernández was without doubt the most widely known and famous Puerto Ricans of the mid-20th century.”
That legacy is carried on by his son, Alejandro “Chalí” Hernández, Director of the Sala Museo Rafael Hernández dedicated to his father. He speaks about his father in the CENTRO Films production, Rafael Hernández in New York, a short documentary (see the trailer below). The film provides an overview of the composer’s life, with an emphasis on his time in New York City.
The documentary will be screened as part of a festival taking place this weekend in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Teatro SEA and the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center will host its third annual “Arte pa’ mi gente / Arts For All” from June 9th to the 11th. The theme for this year’s program is entirely dedicated to the music of Rafael Hernández, including a musical revue presented by Teatro SEA, entitled Rafael Hernández…Romance. Alejandro "Chalí" Hernández will also be in attendance as a special guest and to interpret some of his father’s songs.
The event is free to the public. Tickets are available via Eventbrite. Be sure to check out the film screening, which is scheduled for June 10th at 5pm at Teatro SEA. Alejandro "Chalí" Hernández will also be there to provide commentary on the film.
© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices 07 June 2017.