Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez is a drummer for all seasons. One size fits all. A consummate pro with broad musical tastes, he graces the bands and recordings of a wide variety of performers, not just those in the jazz realm. He's a drummer. Period. Don't mistake that for "any ol' drummer," because he is far from that. He is determined. He worked hard to become a percussionist extraordinaire. He's passionate about his art, devoted to creating music.
Simply stated, El Negro is driven.
Horacio Hernandez, the master drummer from Cuba, is able to fit into any style, dress up anyone's music with the appropriate rhythms and pulse. He loves fitting into a situation to make it a seamless fabric. To use today's buzzword: a team player, almost unnoticed. But you do notice. You notice how good it is.
He's calm and laid back. But don't let that fool you; he's driven. He answers questions directly, with considerable thought and yet with dry humor. But even as he speaks, you can still hear the "pidda-pidda-pidda-pidda" of drumsticks on a practice pad, and the occasional "tick" of the wood sticks clicking against one another. He might not even be aware of it, because he's not ignoring the questions or the conversation.
He talks attending music school in his native Havana. Well sort of attending. Marching to his own beat, as it were literally spending all day studying percussion and ignoring others classes, finishing a four-year drum program in a single year because of his single-mindedness.
He worked long days in a Cuban studio and toured in a band at the same time. Surely, a man has to sleep. To do so, El Negro kept a bed in the studio, copping some Zs where he could. That's driven. After defecting, he practiced "like a dog" for two and half years, while making gigs around Rome and also teaching.
The story of El Negro, his nickname since birth, is one of drive and determination. And rhythm. "From a little kid it was drums. It was love at first sight," Hernandez says of his life.
It is also a life so guided by music that, like many other Cubans, he had to chance a risky escape to pursue the career and life he dreamed of in the United States. But he couldn't jump right to the U.S. Instead he found freedom first in Italy.
"To get out of Cuba," the 38-year-old says in a voice dead-calm, yet dead-serious, "is not a matter of choice, but a matter of chance. You just have to escape anywhere you go. You cannot say, 'I want to go to New York' and come straight here."
He ran up against walls in Italy too, in his effort to get to New York, but refused to give in, refused to let go of his dream. Driven.
El Negro now pursues the career he always wanted, and is very busy because of his prodigious talent and his desire to adapt to each situation with the appropriate touch.
"El Negro is very special," says Michel Camilo, the brilliant pianist who has employed him for years now, including his latest Triangulo
, released in March. "His musical experience goes all the way from very straight ahead, because he plays with Joanne Brackeen as well, in her trio, for example, or he plays free jazz with Joachim Kuhn. Or he plays the New Orleans style with Los Hombres Calientes, or with Dr. John once in a while. He can be very Cuban, of course, because it's ingrained in him. He's very flexible, that's why I love playing with Negro, because he gives me all these different worlds in a moment's notice."
El Negro is mixing his first CD as a co-leader with drummer Robby Ameen, hoping for a release by this fall, and he continues to tour and record with everybody. At this March interview, he was about to go out on duo gigs with bassist Darryl Jones in Italy. Then off to Paris to play with Joachim Kuhn, Ornette Coleman's pianist for many years. "We just finished a record, just out, a trio with Scott Colley on bass. It came out really, really good too." From there to Japan with Jack Bruce. Then Camilo's tour will begin, in late April at the Blue Note in New York City, and Hernandez and bassist Anthony Jackson will weave their magic in that setting. He's also invited to play in London with the BBC Orchestra in London as part of a drum festival.
The roster of people El Negro has played with also includes the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Steve Turre, John Pattituci, Paquito D'Rivera, David Sanchez, Paul Simon, David Valentin, Carlos Santana, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and so many more. It seems a long way from Havana, where music dominated his life, his grandfather a trumpet player and his father both a musician and jazz DJ.
"Havana is a place where you wake up with the neighbor's stereo at 100 watts," he says wryly. "From then on, it's just a competition to who can be louder, who can play more. Every single home in Havana is like that. People playing music on the streets. Drums everywhere.