Rafael Hernandez

From Wind Repertory Project
Rafael Hernandez


Rafael Hernández (24 October 1892, Aguadilla, Puerto Rico – 11 December 1965, San Joan, Puerto Rico) was one of the most important composers of Puerto Rican popular music during the 20th century.

As a child, he learned the craft of cigar making, from which he made a modest living. He also grew to love music and asked his parents to permit him to become a full-time music student. When he was 12 years old, Hernández went to San Juan to study music, under the guidance of music professors Jose Ruellan Lequenica and Jesús Figueroa. He learned to play many musical instruments, among them the clarinet, tuba, violin, piano and guitar. However, according to many Puerto Rican music historians, it was when he learned how to write music that his life and the history of Puerto Rican music would change forever.

At the age of 14, Hernández played for the Cocolia Orquestra. He soon moved to San Juan where he played for the municipal orchestra under the director Manuel Tizol. In 1917, Hernández was working as a musician in North Carolina, when the United States entered World War I. The jazz bandleader James Reese Europe recruited brothers Rafael and Jesús Hernández, and 16 more Puerto Ricans to join the United States Army's Harlem Hell fighters musical band, the Orchestra Europe. He enlisted and was assigned to the U.S. 369th Infantry Regiment. The regiment, nicknamed "The Harlem Hell Fighters" by the Germans, served in France.

After the war, Hernández moved to New York City. In the 1920s, he started writing songs and organized a trio called Trio Borincano. In 1926, fellow Puerto Rican Pedro Flores joined the Trio. Even though Hernández and Flores became and always remained good friends, they soon went their separate ways and artistically competed against each other. After the trio broke up, he formed a quartet called Cuarteto Victoria which included singer Myrta Silva, also known as La Guarachera and La Gorda de Oro. With both groups, Hernández traveled and played his music all over the United States and Latin America. 1929, Trío Borinquen recorded Linda Quisqueya, and that same year he founded the Cuarteto Victoria.

In 1932, Hernández moved to Mexico, where the Mexicans treated him as one of their own. There he directed an orchestra and enrolled in Mexico's National Music Conservatory to further enrich his musical knowledge. Hernández also became an actor and organized many of the musical scores in Mexico's golden age of movies. The Mexicans of the state of Puebla consider his composition "Qué Chula es Puebla" to be their unofficial anthem. His wife was Mexican. In 1937, Hernández wrote one of his greatest works, Lamento Borincano. That same year, he also wrote what is considered by many to be his masterpiece, Preciosa.

In 1947, Hernández returned to Puerto Rico and became the director of the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra. He was also a musical advisor to the government-owned WIPR Radio.

Hernandez's talent went beyond composing only patriotic music. He also composed Christmas music, danzas, zarzuelas, guarachas, lullabies, boleros, waltzes and more. Many people in the Dominican Republic consider his composition Linda Quisqueya their second national anthem. Hernández's works' include Ahora seremos felices (Now We Will Be Happy), Campanitas de cristal (Crystal Bells), Capullito de Alhelí(Guilty),El Cumbanchero (also known as "Rockfort Rock" or "Comanchero" (sic) to reggae aficionados), Ese soy yo (That's Me), Perfume de Gardenias (Gardenia's Perfume), Silencio (Silence), and Tú no comprende (You Don't Understand), among 3,000 others. His music became an important part of Puerto Rican culture.

Hernández was Honorary President of the Authors and Composers Association. He was also the founder of little league baseball in Puerto Rico. President John F. Kennedy christened him "Mr. Cumbanchero." Puerto Rico has honored his memory by naming public buildings, avenues and schools after him. The airport in Aguadilla is named Rafael Hernández Airport. There are schools in The Bronx, Boston, and in Newark, New Jersey named after Rafael Hernández. Renowned Puerto Rican sculptor Tomás Batista created a statue of Hernández which is in the municipality of Bayamón, Puerto Rico. The Interamerican University of Puerto Rico, the repository of his works, operates a small museum in his honor at its Metropolitan Campus in San Juan which is directed by his son, Alejandro (Chalí) Hernández.

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