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Dafnis Prieto: About the Monks

Tomas Pena By

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With respect to mastering the various rhythms, the rhythms in and of themselves mean nothing. The drummer is the one who gives meaning to the rhythms.
His arrival in the U.S. has been compared to that of an asteroid hitting New York. Indeed, in the relatively short period of time Dafnis Prieto's revolutionary drumming techniques have had an astronomical impact on both the Latin and jazz music scene,locally and internationally.

As a youngster Prieto studied at the school of Fine Arts in Santa Clara, Cuba. Later, he studied at the National School of Music in Havana, where he received a thorough classical education, and ever broadening knowledge of Afro-Cuban music, jazz and world music.

Dafnis has accumulated over ten years of experience as a professional musician. He has toured throughout Europe with a succession of talented pianists including Carlos Maza, Ramon Valle and the ground-breaking group, "Columna B."

In addition, Prieto has performed with Jane Bunnett and the Spirits of Havana; Henry Threadgill and Zooid, Eddie Palmieri's Afro-Caribbean Jazz Orchestra; Chico O' Farrill's Afro-Cuban Jazz Project, Arturo O' Farrill and Riza Negra, Dave Samuels & The Caribbean Jazz Project; Peter Apfelbaum & The New York Hyrogliphics, D. D. Jackson Trio & Quartet; Ed Simon Trio, Roberto Occhipinti, Michel Camilo Trio, Chucho Valdes Quartet, Claudia Acuna, Roy Hargrove's Havana Crisol, Andrew Hill, Herbie Hancock; Arturo Sandoval.

Read on as Dafnis discusses his formative years in Cuba, his life in New York and About The Monks , his debut recording as a leader.

All About Jazz: Not much has been written about your formative years in Santa Clara, Cuba. What was it like growing up in Santa Clara?

Dafnis Prieto: I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood and I was surrounded by music. Music was everywhere; on the radio and in the streets. From my home I could hear the comparsas (carnival) rehearsing a few blocks away. In fact, sometimes the comparsas would rehearse in front of my house . . .

AAJ: How old were you then?

DP: I was six or seven years old. Whenever the comparsas would rehearse in front of my house my mother would get very nervous. She knew I was about to get lost (laughter). Invariably, I would always find a way to sneak out of the house and follow the comparsas.

Also, during that period I started going to a social club that taught music. It was there that I learned the basic Cuban rhythms - son, guaracha, etc. I started out as a guitarist . . .

AAJ: Really, what kind of guitar?

DP: The Spanish guitar. It¹s funny the way things turn out. There were six guitar students at the social club. At one point the professor decided to start a band and we were each asked to pick out an instrument (other than the guitar). As fate would have it, I picked the bongos. At one of our performances the guy who played the clave did not show up. Intuitively, I started imitating the clave (by mouth) while playing the bongos. After the performance, the professor urged my mother to enroll me in the school of fine arts. That is when I began to take drumming seriously.

AAJ: You developed an affinity for avant-garde jazz at an early age. How did that occur?

DP: When I was about 14 or 15 years old I went to Havana to continue my musical education. In Havana I had access to a lot of information and I started listening to John Coltrane and Chick Corea. In fact, I used to listen to Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" every day. I also started exploring the music of India because I had heard that there was a relationship between Coltrane's music and Indian music. Then I started listening to Ornette Coleman. By the way, from the beginning I was influenced by drummer Elvin Jones...

For my graduation ceremony, I put together a group and composed and performed an avant-garde piece. The group consisted of four horns, a bass and myself on the traps, kettle drums and whistle. It was a rather revolutionary concept.

AAJ: How was the performance received?

DP: Good, people really liked it, however, I don't think any of them understood the concept. They had no idea that I was influenced by John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. None the less, it was a lot of fun. It gave me the opportunity to create music and perform it with my friends. Some of them went on to perform with Irakere, etc.

AAJ: You have stated that you felt that there was "nowhere to go" with your music in Cuba. Is that one of the reasons you decided to come to the United States?

DP: There are other reasons as well. However, I was feeling a bit suffocated, musically speaking. The only groups I was playing with at the time were "Columna B" and Bobby Carcasses. It was fun, I learned a lot sharing the music with them, but I was also interested in playing with other musicians. The avant-garde scene in Cuba is really small and it is very hard to make a living as a jazz musician. To survive you have to travel out of Cuba, make money (American dollars) and spend it in Cuba. Besides, I didn't have a place to live in Havana because my family lived in Santa Clara, so I had to rent places all the time.

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