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Interviews

Horacio 'El Negro' Hernandez : One Size Fits All

By Published: February 23, 2004

The biggest pleasure is to be able to be able to play with other musicians that really know what they are doing. There's two kinds of music: there's good music and bad music.

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.

That's driven.

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.

Driven.

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.

And how.

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.

"My father was sort of the only jazz DJ in Cuba for the last 40 or 50 years. It was a little bit hard for him, in the sense that in Cuba, every kind of American art form was considered the enemy art form. So he had to play, a few times a week, "Song for Chï" [Cuban revolutionary leader Chï Guevera] by Charlie Haden, and stuff like that to try to cover, try to make the government happy. But, at least he was the only source of information for musicians that were jazz fans. He even was a big fan of the avant-garde and free jazz, Ornette and Anthony Braxton and Coltrane."

The complicated structure of jazz was "too heavy" at first for little El Negro. (The nickname origins: "When my mother was pregnant with me, my brother was madly trying to give me the name of his friend. But I have the name of my father and my grandfather. All my direct family has males with the name Horacio. So there was no way they were going to give me a different name. In my house there was a moment when there were three Horacios. So my grandfather was Horacio. My father was Horacio. And for me, there was nothing there. So El Negro came perfect. That's what my mother called me. Every one called me. It's a common nickname, not only in Cuba, but in all Latin America."

"Of course I didn't understand jazz when I was 8 or 9 or 10, or even a teenager. And my grandfather was a trumpet player in a traditional Cuban band. So for me, the music of my grandfather was the music of all people," he says with sleight-of-hand humor, "and the music of my father was music of crazy people."

He also heard the Beatles and other American pop music because that's the music his brother listened to.

Young El Negro was listening to Cuban drummers, and two made a huge impression: Enrique Plï, the drummer with the outstanding Cuban band Irakere, and Tony Valdez, who played with saxophonist Nicholas Reynoso.

"I was watching these two guys since I was a little, little kid. Now, trying to go back, I think that the reason why I wanted to be a drummer is because I saw Irakere when I was like 3 or 4 years old and I remember being astonished by Enrique, watching him and saying 'Wow, that's what I want to do,'" he says.

"I went to the music school for one year, when I was 14. I made a big mistake, but it worked for me," he says. "The thing was, I never went to any other class but the drum class. I used to go to the school at 8 in the morning, in drum class, until 8 at night. So at the end of the year, the other teachers didn't even know who I was. But I did the four years of percussion in one. I was so into it. And then after that, my teacher just encouraged me to play professionally, so at 15 I started playing the nightclubs and stuff in Havana. Even before having the sort of license to get in."

His familiarity with American rock music was such that "I was, at that time, sort of the American drummer in Cuba. There was a couple of bands that used to play cover songs and stuff like that. From there I started working with the bands where Gonzalo Rubalcaba was the pianist. And then Gonzalo formed his own band, and that was more like a Latin jazz group, avant-garde stuff."

El Negro joined the band led by Rubalcaba, the exceptional Cuban pianist, called Grupo Proyecto, and stayed there 10 years, playing both the United States and jazz festivals in Europe. "And at the same time, Ignacio Berroa, another Cuban drummer that lives here now, he had left Cuba in 1980, and I was called to do all the studio work he was doing at that time. So, I started working in the studio on a daily basis. I used to have a bed in the studio so I could sleep for a couple of hours in between sessions. So it was studio work, and then Gonzalo's band, and that was for 10 years, before I decided to move out of Cuba."

Move out is putting it mildly. His defection carried high risk, slipping away from a hostile Cuban government that kept close eyes on its touring musicians. El Negro had friends in Italy that helped him escape, and he fled to Rome. The U.S. government, at this point, was no help.

"My dream since I left Cuba was to go to New York. But, it's very hard to get there. My father was a very good friend of Paquito D'Rivera and all the Cuban musicians in the United States. I went to the American Embassy for political asylum. They told me, 'If you want to be free, you can be free here anytime. Do you know how many musicians there are in the United States without work?' So, I had no choice but to stay in Italy," he says.

And stay he did, for two and a half years. He was stuck despite the efforts of Dizzy Gillespie, who had championed other Cuban musicians like trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, to help get them to the United States, to liberty, and to the ultimate freedom music: jazz.

"When they denied me political asylum in Rome, I called Paquito D'Rivera and he called Dizzy Gillespie. And I had played with Dizzy two times in Cuba. Each time he went to Cuba, he couldn't bring his drummer, because he was a Cuban escapee. So I always played with Dizzy in Cuba. So I called Paquito, and Paquito called Dizzy and all of the sudden I get a phone call from the American Embassy in Rome, giving me a date to come," he explains. "So I go to the meeting with the counsel and this man tells me that I have very influential friends in the United States, which I didn't even know. I still don't know," he adds, chuckling.

"He said 'Mr. Dizzy Gillespie has requested your visa from the United States so everything is going to be all right. You're going to come to the United States. All you have to do is call this number every week until your visa comes, and then you can stay.' So I was the happiest man in the world. So I called the first week and they told me my visa was not ready. I called the next week, the same thing. And then the third week, Dizzy Gillespie passed away. So after he passed away, they told me instead of calling every week, call every two weeks. The thing was that the visa never got there. So I was in Rome for two and a half years."

All was not lost. He put his drive and energy into studying the drums even harder, teaching, and gigging around Italy.

"It was sort of a period in my life — I had never before studied like that. They gave me all the possibilities and the time. I was stationed in a school and I had a very nice place to practice my stuff. It was years of playing with every single Roman jazz musician and at the same time practicing like a dog. And teaching too. Practicing, really, was those two years and a half."

And then he met a man who would help him get away again.

"A friend of mine asked me if I had a place in my house for a friend of his from Miami who was just staying for a few days. I said yes. And the guy came," says El Negro. He described the man as being in the business of making such things happen — on the sly, of course. "I told him the whole story that I wanted to go to the United States. And he offered to bring me with a false passport. So that's how it happened. Cubans have the right of asylum once they get into American territory, but the problem is just to get here. So this guy brought me here with a false passport."

El Negro made it to Miami, then took a plane to New York. If he thought things were going well, he was about to fall into more serendipity.

"I had an Italian friend that got me a small apartment here [New York], a sublet. I get into New York and I walk into this apartment — with a drum set!" he says, still incredulous. "And a million jazz records, in the center of the East Village!"

It turned out the apartment that had been sublet to his friend, then El Negro himself, was that of drummer Jeff Ballard, now working with Chick Corea. So it was equipped to his liking by sheer good fortune. "And all of the sudden I was in the heart of New York in an apartment with a drum set. And every single jazz record you can imagine. I called Paquito D'Rivera the first day I came. And he said 'Wow, how are you here?' I said 'Don't worry, I'm here.' He said, 'OK, tomorrow we go into the studio.' And I did my first record here the first day after I came. That was Forty Years of Cuban Jam Sessions, Paquito's record."

But once in New York, El Negro didn't have the necessary documents to travel, so he lost all gigs that involved touring — for two years. It didn't stop him. No surprise, since nothing else had.

"I went to play in every club in New York, every small club in New York for two years. I was playing everything. Jazz, blues, folk, everything. With everyone, until I got the papers, and then life switched. At that time, I was going to see everyone, every night. Especially, Marvin "Smitty" Smith, before he went to L.A. I am still a big fan of his drumming. Him and Tony Campbell and Billy Hart, all the drummers that live in the city. We all became very good friends."

Once mobile, he got more work, began touring, and has been busy ever since. It even included a stint with Latin rock legend Santana.

"That came about out of a concert I did in San Francisco with Irakere. And the drummer Enrique Plï, was not able to make the trip. So they called me, they knew I was living in New York at the time. They found me and called me to play this concert with them. And then Santana showed up at the concert. I told him, 'Man, I would love to play with you one day.' A year and a half after that I got a call from him, asking me to join the band. So I went and did it for almost two years, but then they wanted me to move to California, and I didn't want to. I really loved New York and the New York music scene. So that was the ending of it."

Now he makes his living mixing and matching musical situations, making others look good, he hopes. He doesn't consider himself a jazz drummer, particularly, just a musician. A percussionist who brings to the table what is necessary in a given circumstance. "I think it's many different styles. They call it now World Music. But of course the Afro-Cuban influence may be my main vein, sort of," he says.

It's not complicated to El Negro. He loves the diversity and doesn't have any preference for what type of music is being played. That's life. "The biggest pleasure is to be able to be able to play with other musicians that really know what they are doing. There's two kinds of music: there's good music and bad music. So, when you play with people that know the style and they have a big experience making music, it's really a big pleasure. Even when you're playing on the street."

"It's been great. The last three years have been totally crazy," he says with satisfaction.

He still teaches some, about four weeks out of the year, but his focus is on playing. He's in demand and capitalizing on it, and he's excited about the impending CD.

"We're making a CD of two drummers, Robby Ameen and myself. We are sort of in the mixing process now. We're very happy the whole thing is coming out. As a matter of fact we had a gig last night at the Knitting Factory, we played with the band for the first time," says El Negro. "We have a million guests. Reuben Blades does a song. Jack Bruce. John Beasley. We had the chance to have so many friends to help us in this project, that it's really sounding good."

El Negro is still driven. A thirst for knowledge and new experience is behind that drive.

"That's the beauty of the music. Nobody knows nothing at the end. Every day playing with every musician is always like going to school. The thing that I enjoy more, maybe, is learning."

Where will his place be as a drummer? It's not a question that's on his mind. "I don't know. Maybe I have something. Maybe the variety of styles and the possibility to adapt to what the leader wants out of a drummer. Somebody that makes his music the best he hears it, and that doesn't bother him," he says tongue-in-cheek.

"I always say I wish I was more busy. There's been lots the last three years now. I hope it doesn't go down," he chuckles. "I will keep trying."

Visit Horacio "El Negro Hernandez on the web at www.elnegro.com .



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