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Horacio 'El Negro' Hernandez : One Size Fits All

By Published: February 23, 2004
"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.

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