Latin Master Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez

It is one of the first rehearsals for Santana with the band’s new drummer, the monstrous Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez. The group is working through one of its classic tunes, and as the deep groove intensifies, Hernandez seems to grow two extra arms and legs, playing a dizzying combination of cowbells, toms, and splashes on top of the central drumset foundation.

Nodding his head in approval is Carlos Santana, whose neck suddenly arches as he rips the feedback from his guitar and then points heavenward. Feeling the syncopated beat offered up by the new drummer, percussionist Raul Rekow smiles broadly as he pounds his massive hands on the congas. The band is reaching a new level of rhythmic intensity, thanks to “El Negro”.

Hernandez is in California rehearsing with Santana, having arrived from New York City . . . by way of Rome . . . by way of Havana. Horacio’s globe-trotting recent past is certainly fitting, his worldly beats signify an important fusion of the Afro-Cuban drumset/percussion tradition that was begun half a century ago in Havana by Candido and Walfredo Reyes, Sr. with the steamy brew of jazz, funk, rock and fusion that was sent into Cuba via Miami radio stations.

“In Santana you do not have to play.” smiles Hernandez, whose newly died bright-red hair is a symbol of the freedom he feels with the band. Actually, El Negro is doing a lot of playing in the group, alongside veteran percussionists Raul Rekow and Karl Perazzo.

“Raul has a power that I’ve never heard anybody play with. And he a Karl have it down as to how to integrate Afro-Cuban music with rock. I’m in heaven listening to all these sounds. And nobody has to say anything to me about what to play. It’s in the air, obviuos. What is great is that everybody is into it. Everything is growing at the same time. It’s like a rocket: All of a sudden —bang!–it goes straight to the moon.”

Carlos Santana’s attraction to Horacio’s playing was just as immediate. In 1995 the drummer performed a concert with the band Irakere West at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall, and Carlos was the guest star. The guitarist was so impressed with Horacio that when the time came to form a band for his 1997 world tour, Santana knew who he wanted. Besides doing an extensive tour with Santana and recording a new album (due to come out soon), Horacio hopes to complete a method book for drummers on independence. He also has an educational video in the works with bassist John Patitucci that will be released by DCI.

It’s hard to many of us to imagine being detained for two weeks by the authorities at the age of thirteen for playing “the music of the enemy”. or attending a school where congas and timbales are banned for political reasons. Nor is it likely many of us have been refused food for being of the wrong political party, followed by a government agent whenever we stepped over the border, or denied entrance to the country we wanted to visit. But these situations were all part of the musical journey of Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez. His name may be new to many, but that says more about the sorry nature of international politics than it does about the music track record of this thirty-three-year-old marvel of independence. “Set-drum playing in Cuba, with the marriage of jazz and Cuban music, began in the pre-Castro days, and one of the guys who really knows about that is Horacio,” says Walfredo Reyes Sr., the “left foot clave” pioneer who was mixing drumkit and percussion in Havana in the early 1950s. “I saw Horacio play with Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s first group, and I was amazed. The evolution of music in Cuba has really picked up. I think Horacio is one of the finest young drummers in the business right now.”

Three of the recordings that clearly showcase Horacio’s growing talent and versatility are with Cuban pianist Rubalcaba and his group Proyecto (Previously available only as imports, are all now distributed in the US by Rounder Records.) Live In Havana (1986) began to establish Ribalcaba’s group internationally as a Cuban version of Weather Report. Mi Gran Pasion (1987) is an inventive session imbued with the Cuban musical traditions. And Giraldilla (1989) is full of remarkable world-fusion tracks, recorded in Germany one year before Hernandez defected to Italy.

Hernandez had hoped to move to New York quickly, but legal hassles persisted for three years. The US embassy told him there were enough musicians in the United States already, and that he was free enough in Italy. The drummer found plenty of work in Rome, though, with the likes of Pino Danielle, Gary Bartz, and Steve Turre, and he formed his own band, Tercer Mundo. He also taught at the Universita della Musica and chaired the Latin drums department of the Centro di Percussion Timba.

After seizing an opportunity to move to the US in early 1993, Hernandez was offered jobs by Paquito D’Rivera, Dave Valentin, and Michael Camilo, but he didn’t have papers to travel and had to turn the gigs down. He became a club musician in New York and found world album projects with Ed Simon, Victor Mendoza, and David Sanchez. He played on Paquito D’Rivera Presents 40 Years Of Cuban Jam Sessions for TropiJazz, and became a favorite drummer for that label. He jams with some of the giants on TropiJazz All Stars, swings gracefully with Tito Puente’s Latin Jazz Ensemble and vocalist India on Jazzin’, and displays his astounding percussion/kit ideas — with his amazing left-foot clave technique–on pianist Michael Camilo’s new Through My Eyes. “Important” is the word that comes to mind when hearing “El Negro.”

RT: I understand you flew to Miami to record Paquito D’Rivera Presents 40 Years Of Cuban Jam Sessions the day after arriving in the US in 1993.

HH: That was just what I was looking for. There was no rehearsal, it was right into the studio. It was a jam with a lot of great musicians involved. And besides being a great musician, as a conductor Paquito has the grace to get the best out of people.

RT: That CD starts out like a concert band, then goes into the groove, and then comes back. Is that like a Cuban jam session?

HH: It’s exactly like that. Somebody brings a theme, a blues form or something, and then “Let’s go!”

One of the most important things you can learn from jamming is listening. Everything is improvised–it’s made up right there– but you can feel the connection. You don’t feel that it’s ten people playing by themselves in their own ways, you feel one band going at the same time. What the other people are playing becomes more important to you–to inspire you– than what you play yourself. You’re going to have a point in your solo where you can play all you want, but mainly the rest is listening.

RT: Tell me a little about your musical background.

HH: My house was very musical. My grandfather was listening to traditional Cuban music all day. My father was the biggest jazz freak in Cuba. He knew everybody. And my brother was listening to the Beatles. We had a bunch of instruments at the house, but I was always crazy with the drums. I remember teachers throwing me out of school because I was playing with pencils. I played at home for four or five years, and then when I was fourteen I went to a music school. We had the formal education at this school—literature and math—but I spent the whole day in drum classes. So at the end of the year I was gone. But this teacher, Santiago Reiter, was the best thing that could have happened to me. He was very creative. He had only one book, the Jim Chapin book, and at that time he already thought of how to apply that book in many ways to many different styles. He had me practice it with the left hand on the cymbal instead of the right. He was the person who gave me the desire to do something different with the drums.

RT: When you started learning, were you a right-hand-lead- player?

HH: Yeah, I am right-hand-lead, but this teacher was into total freedom on the drumset. So there was a point where I did everything left-handed. I used to ride symbol on my left at the beginning with Gonzalo, and I was playing a lot of stuff left-handed. I don’t know if that’s the right way to call it–you know, people just call it left-handed because the left hand is playing the ride cymbal instead of the right. So that concept of left-or right-handed, I don’t know if it’s really a lead role of any hand.

RT: You’re trying to blur that idea.

HH: Right. Anything can be the lead part. It can be the bass drum or the left foot or your left hand or your right hand. A lot of people just look at the hand that is playing the cymbal, but the main role may be in what they are playing in the other hand. It’s more about thinking of sounds. I have certain sounds that I can reach with my left foot and certain sounds that I can reach with my right hand. So I see it more as which sounds can lead a particular rhythm.

RT: How do you build a pattern? Do you think of a sound or a certain instrument first?

HH: To me a pattern is a melodic cycle rather than a rhythmic pattern. The rhythm is important, and you can probably play the same thing on only one sound source, but I take that rhythm and try to find a melody that makes it more than a pattern. I’ll take it and create a melody that will end up being the foundation for somebody else who will be creating a melody on top of that.

RT: You spread it out over the kit to make the melody?

HH: Yes, and you get a lot of help from what the other musicians are playing, like the bass line. You’ve got to play the tune first to hear what the others are playing, and then you can create a pattern or a rhythmic foundation to work with all of that. That applies to every kind of music. On a rock tune we have the snare on 2 and 4, but the bass drum is going to work only after you hear the bass line.

RT: How does that concept work now with Santana, where you’re working on popular older material?

HH: I have a great opportunity now to go to my roots. I’m playing some tunes the way they were played before, others a new way. We’re playing a lot of new material, creating drum parts for that. I’m not a rock drummer, I’m not a jazz drummer, I’m not an Afro-Cuban drummer–but I play rock, jazz and Afro-Cuban rhythm. I think if I had to classify myself, I would that that I am more like a “world beat” drummer.

RT: Did you start putting those different styles together in your mind from an early age?

HH: Early on I thought that my grandfather’s music was old and that my father’s music was crazy. My brother was into the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, which every thirteen—year—old was into. There was no way to get records in Cuba, but fortunately we were only ninety miles from Florida, so we had the radio on every day. I didn’t understand a word of what anybody was saying on the radio because I didn’t speak English at the time, so it was pure music that I was listening to.

From the radio I tried to imitate Ringo Starr, John Bonham, and Bill Bruford. Later on it was Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Chick Corea’s Return To Forever, and at that point I was getting closer to my father’s music, jazz. I listened to everybody, every drummer: Tony Williams, Jack DeJohnette, Billy Cobham, Lenny White, Narada Michael Walden. Eventually I heard Steve Gadd, and Dave Weckl, Vinnie Colaiuta, Dennis Chambers, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and Robbie Ameen. It’s an endless list. I also listened to all of the drummers that were with Santana, like Michael Shrieve, Graham Lear, and Walfredo Reyes Jr. And through jazz, with artists like Dizzy Gillespie, I discovered Afro—Cuban music, which is kind of funny because I had traditional Afro—Cuban music right there.

RT: How did your playing career get started?

HH: I started playing with a saxophone player, Nicolas Reynoso, who Gonzalo Rubalcaba was playing piano for, and that’s how Gonzalo and I met. Then I started working in the studios. I did over three hundred records for Cuban artists. There were two studios, one on top of the other, and I used to have a mattress there. I would go to one session, sleep for two hours, and then go to another session. I didn’t have time to go home, and that happened for a week sometimes. Just recording and recording. I loved that job. My idol at that time was Steve Gadd, so I’d look at myself in the mirror and think I was the Cuban Steve Gadd!

All of that studio experience gave me a chance to listen to myself, to hear what I was doing. I never recorded myself when I practiced, so I never had the chance to listen and say “Okay, this worked and this didn’t work.”

RT: You must have been exposed to all kinds of music, too.

HH: There was all kinds of music—Cuban, ballads, rock—which in Cuba was called “nueva trova”—and a new folk movement. I loved to play every kind of music. I believe that there are two kinds of music, good and bad. The style doesn’t matter. So working in the studio with Nicolas was a great chance to learn.

Then one day Gonzalo Rubalcaba asked me if I wnated to join a band he was putting together. It was a great band, and it offered a lot of freedom musically. We didn’t’ play anything that was played before, so I didn’t have to play like anybody else. It was, “Let’s sit and play,” and everybody was playing something different and happy to be listening to something new.

RT: How many players were in that group?

HH: Seven, with a guy name Roberto Vizcaino playing a percussion set with congas, timbales, bongos, and everything at the same time. Roberto is a multi-instrumentalist. He’s a great conga player and a great timbale player. And he graduated from classical percussion school, so he can play vibes, marimba, and timpani. He has stupid coordination: He can play the congas with one hand and solo with the other hand on timbales. It’s unbelievable. It was a joy to work with him and we locked in on the first day.

Sometimes Gonzalo would come in and say, “Okay, I have this tune that is a 6/8 thing, and the bass line is like this. . . .” Roberto would start playing a pattern on top of that, and I would start doing a pattern that complimented his part and at the same time got the bass line’s spirit in there too. Or I would be playing a pattern and he would come in on top of that. We found a way to create patterns that worked together. People used to call us “the industry.” They said it was the sound of an industry going.

The pure drumset was becoming limited for me, limiting me to sounding one way. I already had five cowbells in my drumset, and that wasn’t enough. Roberto was responsible for making me look at traditional percussion instruments in a different way and seeing the big picture in that field. I thank God because I had the chance to play with the best percussionists in the world. It led me to a more massive concept of drumming.

RT: And working with percussionists involves listening.

HH: In the old school the drummer was the guy who carried the time. But everybody has to carry the time. If there’s not a drummer there, the band still has to sound in time. Music requires the drummer for colors and to make music, not just to keep the time. Percussion players have freedom that we drumset players don’t have sometimes, because we are supposed to keep the time. They have a more open rhythmic spectrum, but they’re keeping time all the same, even if they are doing colors and effects, or soloing. They know where 1 is. The drums gave me the chance to have these people around me and to work with them. I studied percussion and rhythms, I don’t consider myself a percussion player, a conga player, a bongo player, or a timbale player. I respect the people who do that the way it should be done—the way Giovanni Hidalgo does it, the way Changuito does it, the way Orestes Vilato and Tito Puente do it. They have dedicated their lives to it. You cannot be a boxer and a volleyball player at the same time.

RT: Did you get into your left-foot clave independence when you were with Gonzalo?

HH: The first person that I heard play something like that was Candido, the legendary percussionist with Dizzy and Chico O’Farrill in the ’50s. At one point he was playing a conga and a hi—hat, and a cowbell with his foot. And then Walfredo Reyes, Sr. got into that after Candido. In my case, that comes straight from this teacher, Santiago Reiter. He was very upset, because many drummers at that time didn’t even play the hi—hat. They were playing only with their hands. Reiter, from the very first day I studied with him, was, “You havee to move the left foot. So let’s play it in quarter notes, then let’s play it in half notes, now let’s play it on the  offbeats, now on the downbeats.” He taught me that there were other things you could do with the left food.

I started playing the clave thing when I was with Gonzalo, about twelve or thirteen years ago. At that time it was more like creating a pattern on the drums and incorporating the clave. Eventually I started thinking that I had the chance to become free with my other three limbs while I was keeping the clave. The Afro-Cuban language is so rich rhythmically, because it’s like three and four rhythms going at the same time. You can play triplet feels and 16th feels, and the clave fits with both cases.

I started playing with the clave and trying to solo on top of it, and then I created my own exercises to develop independence. All the Afro-Cuban books out there have patterns. So people learn a pattern, but they don’t know what to do with that pattern because they don’t have the coordination to feel free inside a pattern to move away and come back.

I remember when I was trying to learn how to play jazz; the first thing I got was a coordination book, the Jim Chapin book. If you have the coordination, you can play any pattern right away. You don’t have to sit there with a book and say, Well, this hand goes like this, now this one.

RT: How can somebody begin to learn left-foot clave?

HH: People are looking at this only in a rhythmic way, but you’re talking about music, not only drumming. The clave is a pattern, but besides a pattern it’s the main melody in Afro-Cuban music. Miles Davis said there’s always a melody inside the melody, and that’s what clave is. Clave is the main melody from where you go with all the melodies. I think that learning to play left-foot clave within the rhythm is more of a melodic than a rhythmic process. You’re creating another melody with your foot and trying to connect all the melodies to it. I don’t think of it as a separate thing.

RT: On Michael Camilo’s “Mambo Inn” [from Through My Eyes] you play a pattern on cowbell with your hands and then answer it on cowbell with your feet.

HH: Yeah, it’s another sound possibility. I like the cowbell. Actually, the original clave is a wood sound. Personally I prefer the cowbell sound, because I play other sounds too.

RT: Do you use a hard or soft beater on the cowbell?

HH: A soft beater. It’s a little bit of a sweeter sound. The hard beater is too metallic. I play it on different places, not just for clave, like for quarter notes, and the wood sound on something like that sounds too much like a click track or some pre-recorded thing. A cowbell sounds more natural and more earthy.

I remember learning to play 8th notes on the hi-hat by listening to Tony Williams. So now I have my cowbell there and my hi-hat. I got back and forth between the cowbell and the hi-hat in a pattern. I’m using different sound sources but using the same technique that I learned from Tony.

RT: Did you continue to hone these concepts after you left Cuba and Gonzalo’s band and were living in Italy?

HH: I learned a lot in Rome, because that was the first time in my life that I taught drums. I had to find an explanation for everything. Stuff that I just did I now had to think about. I did that for two years, six times a day. I really had the perfect conditions for practicing, and I was totally into drumming. I rented an apartment two blocks from the school, so I was sleeping till 12:00, teaching from 2:00 till 8:00, practicing or playing somewhere until 1:00 in the morning, and then going out to dinner.

When I did get to New York, in order to survive I played for $50 a night. I was playing every night until I got my papers, about a year and a half ago. I had the chance to do some good records, like with Ed Simon and Anthony Jackson, but not too much because I was not able to travel. As soon as I got my papers I started working with Michel Camilo.

RT: You seem real comfortable in that trio setting, both with Ed Simon and Michel Camilo.

HH: I think I like my work with Michel more than with Ed. I’m sorry that I didn’t play more mature with him. I don’t know if “mature” is the word. I mean, in Cuba we try to play like Americans. And the Americans try to play like Cubans. So in Cuba there are a lot of people that know Steve Gadd better than people here do. And there are people here who know Changuito better than the Cubans.

RT: You think that affected how you played with Ed Simon?

HH: Yeah. It was a part of finding myself. With Michel I was trying to find a more particular sound. Sound—wise, when I got Michel’s gig, I didn’t want to play drumset. With him I was using the bass drum, bongos, timbales, two floor toms, snare, cowbells, and cymbals. It was like drums, but instead of the rack toms I had bongos and timbales. And that was mainly just to get away from the style of drumming that he was used to.

Michel likes a certain kind of playing, like the way Dave Weckl plays. At that time in my life I was not interested in doing that. So I told him that I really appreciated the gig, but that I wanted to do it my way. We got together and played, and we were totally in love with it. I feel more confident that I can find a way to be myself. I listen to everybody every day, but I’m gonna do it my way. Young jazz drummers are influenced by Dave Weckl, but we have to prove ourselves in the music that we’re making. We cannot try to play like somebody played fifty years ago or try to sound like him. Some people think that there’s nothing else to say, but to me there’s a lot to say. Just live your time. Listen to everybody and put all of that into where you are today.

RT: Those are some great arrangements on Michel’s record. How much rehearsing did you guys do?

HH: Two rehearsals, three hours each day. The musicians that you have around you are so important. The people you work with are a big part of your playing. It’s like, with Michel and John Patitucci or Anthony Jackson, you don’t have to play. What they play is going to tell you what you have to do. You don’t even have to think about it, you just have to hear what those people are playing, and that’s all. It was the first time that I was with John, and it was a blessing. He’s a great musician and a great guy, We’re going to do a video with bass and drums. I’m thrilled.

RT: “Night In Tunisia” [also from Camilo’s Through My Eyes] is a wide—open track, and you can tell a lot of listening is going on when you and Michel spar at the end.

HH: We did that one in one take, but it was so funny. Michel said, “Okay, let’s rehearse this ‘Night In Tunisia,’ and the engineer recorded it. Then the engineer said, “Yo, that was killing.” It’s beautiful because it was fresh, like, “Who knows what’s going to happen? Let’s just go.”

RT: Do you have a regular practice routine?

HH: “Practice” is the wrong word. I love to improvise, so I sit at my drums, start playing, and then I realize that it is six hours later. That’s the way ideas come for me. I don’t record my practice and listen to it. I remember probably two percent of all that I play in one day, but those things become tools, and then you give them some kind of order.

RT: If you find something that you like, you’ll work on it for a while and then move on.

HH: Yeah. It happens a lot that when you move on and play something else for half an hour, you don’t remember the original idea anymore. But then a day later, the thing comes back to you. That’s mainly the way I work. It’s like giving the brain a chance to think of the random takes, things that I definitely played before but that I don’t have numbered or classified. They are in some way in my brain.

RT: Do you have a set thing you play at clinics?

HH: At clinics you have to give an explanation of what you’re playing, and for me the teaching experience was very important. In a clinic you have no time to find an explanation for it; you have to have that explanation ready.

At clinics I work more with Afro—Cuban music and the relationships of the binary and trinary subdivisions found in the music. Afro-Cuban music has both of these subdivisions in a bar at the same time—triplet and 8th-note subdivisions. In rock or other kinds of music with more steady rhythmic patterns, you are either in two or three. It’s more important to make people
first understand that than to try and teach them patterns, because that’s the foundation of the whole style—that you are in both times at the same time. Nobody can play that style well until they feel that inside. So I’ll play a solo in 4/4, and then in 6/8, and then I play a solo where it’s 4/4 and 6/8, to try to make people understand.

RT: Kind of like Elvin Jones’ triplet feel in jazz?

HH: Right. I think that comes totally in African drumming. The bata rhythms have a lot of those concepts. So it’s a very good point of reference to listen to bata and Afro—Cuban folkloric music. The bata that I am influenced by was created in Cuba by the Africans who were brought to Cuba as slaves. And they play some incredible rhythms with that, intricate rhythms that are based on two and three at the same time.

RT: You have a great feeling for odd time playing, like on that early Gonzalo
Rubalcaba stuff, and the Ed Simon release.

HH: Yeah, Gonzalo used to play them every night, and Ed is a great composer. A lot of his music that is in odd times feels like it’s in four. Music is not about people playing odd times just for the fact of playing an odd time thing. Music is about making it flow, like Vinnie Colaiuta does with Sting when they play in five and seven.

RT: The TropiJazz All Stars is quite a line- up.

HH: Talk about a percussion section! That band was a blessing. We had Tito Puente, Giovanni Hidalgo, Richie Flores, Johnny Almendra, and me. And again, when you’re playing drums and it’s this Latin— jazz or Afro—Cuban thing, you have to know how to be the drum/percussion player with percussion players. In this case, I was not able to play any percussion parts. They were
all covered. That is when you have to create another melody that is going to work with the melodies that are already there.

Working with Giovanni Hidalgo has been a big experience for me. There are times when you are into drums and times when you’re not into drums. And it just so happened that one of the first times that I worked with Giovanni I was in one of those periods when I wasn’t into the drums. Giovanni has incredible talent and incredible hands. Nobody can play that way. And I asked him, “How can you do those things?” And he told me, “Negro, don’t bullshit me. You know that the only way you can do these things is if you sit here from 8:00 in the morning till 8:00 at night.” I will always thank him for that, because he put back in me the spirit of practicing, and always playing. Don’t stop playing, ever. I consider him my supreme teacher.

RT: There’s a track on Paquito’s 40 Years Of Cuban Jam Sessions called “Despojo” where you’re playing a half—time funk beat under all this percussion.

HH: Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about. You’re playing with a bunch of percussion players, so you have to go somewhere else to find a melody that is going to work with their melody. You cannot play their parts, they are already playing them.

I remember Gonzalo’s band was not [just] an Afro—Cuban band, or an Afro-Cuban jazz band, or an Afro—Cuban jazz—rock band. It’s like you can keep adding words, and it’s going to go and go and go. Before we were used to only Afro—Cuban or jazz—rock. Now it’s Afro—Cuban—jazz—
rock—polka—funk—that is what it is, and more.

As I said before, I consider what I play “world music.” Of course we’re going to have influences, but I’m sure that in fifty years it’s not going to be important if you were born in Havana or Moscow or wherever. It’s going to be one world—no countries. Music is a leading force in the process of bringing human beings together. That’s what we’re doing.


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