Under the leadership of Juan José Hernández, the group takes on a fresh approach to Caribbean music

Por Andrés Martínez Tutek / NYC
Updated Septiembre 04, 2008
Cortesía: L.O.T.O

For a few years, Juan José Hernández spent his time as a backup singer and writing songs for music greats. But two years ago he decided he had what it took to take a step forward and create his own group, San Juan-Habana, which is already finding a prominent place among salsa fans.

Passing through New York, this 34-year-old Puerto Rican musician spoke in an exclusive interview with People En Espanol.com about his wish to unite Cuba and Puerto Rico in one single disc, and about the group's amusing live performances, in which, with talent and creativity, he and each of his five musicians play various instruments simultaneously, driving even the most boring person to dance.

Where did this idea to create your own group come from?
I've always been singing and composing, but two years ago I decided to create something of my own. So I began to work on a new concept, something danceable, tropical and really Caribbean. That's where the San Juan-Habana name came from, the mix of Cuba and Puerto Rico, with I use in an effort to create an identity and a different sound. I'm not saying we're inventing new sounds, but what we do is something more refreshing, more fitting to the image of this group of five young musicians and me.

But, is there something unique in what you do?
Sure. What is totally innovative is the concept of live performances, since each individual musician plays various instruments at the same time and we achieve a huge sonority that moves everyone to dance. Those who have seen and heard us perform know they're in for a treat, because the moment they start listening to us they begin to sing and dance.

How important has music been in your life?
Since I was born, really. It's something that has always been there and, when you live with that, you feel the urge to let out what you want to express and channel those feelings toward the public.

And are there other musician who've influenced you?
Of course, we have been influenced by various types of music: trova (A poetic ballad) and Cuban son (a lively, danceable beat), jazz, as well as Puerto Rican rhythms known as la bomba and la plena, danzón, comparsa and indigenous native music, yet all in the context of hard salsa. We also watch people like La Fania, El Gran Combo, Rubén Blades and Gilberto Santa Rosa.

Talk to us a little bit about that dream of yours that has already turned into an album…
That album is titled Juan José Hernández San Juan-Habana and, though we started working on it in April 2006, it only became a reality last March. We're very happy with it. The majority of the compositions are mine and they are packed with huge social content, sending messages of love and carrying stories rooted in everyday themes.

Your song “Arroz con habichuela” (Rice and beans) by El Gran Combo won a Latin GRAMMY. What do you think of the awards?
Well, we don't do our work to win awards, but we can't deny that they make us very happy. I've also written songs that have become great hits, like “En las nubes” (In the clouds), sung by Andy Montañez, “Conteo regresivo” (Reverse count), sung by Gilberto Santa Rosa and others for Ismael Miranda, with whom I sing a duet in my album.

What is San Juan-Habana's dream at this moment?
What we want is to internationalize our music, so that people can listen to it at any level and everywhere in the world, and can sing and dance to it. I hope to continue making a living out of this, and to always be able to sing, which is what I like to do and will continue doing until our music gets to be heard in places as far away as China.