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.

AAJ: At some point you got involved with Jane Bunnett & the Spirits of Havana and traveled to Canada and the U. S.

DP: I got involved with Jane Bunnet and traveled to Canada a bunch of times. However, my decision to leave Cuba occurred when "Columna B" traveled to Spain. My wife Judith, who is a professional dancer, had a contract to perform in Barcelona, Spain for two years. I decided then and there that I would not return to Cuba. So I stayed in Spain for one year. Consequently, Jane Bunnet invited me to tour with her in Canada and the U.S. During that time I applied for a visa to return to Barcelona and my request was denied. The situation forced me to consider living in New York. I had visited New York with "Columna B" and we performed at the Knitting Factory and the Zinc Bar . . .

AAJ: I am sorry I missed out on those performances. "Columna B" is one of my favorite Cuban bands. What year was that?

DP: 1996. Those were good times . . .

AAJ: with respect to "Columna B," who were the original members? Any chance of a reunion and/or a recording at some point in the future?

DP: I would like that. "Columna B" had a very revolutionary sound. The original members were Roberto Carcasses, Yosvany Terry, Descemer Bueno and myself. "Columna B" was a quartet, however, we featured special guests such as Don Pancho Terry and Miguel Anga. The first album was recorded in Cuba and released in Barcelona, Spain, however the album is currently unavailable.

AAJ: A pity. I have searched high and low for Columna B's first album with no success.

DP: Getting back to New York. At first, I didn't like it at all.

AAJ: Its understandable. You hail from a small town environment . . .

DP: Yes, at the time even Havana was a bit too much for me. However, it's funny the way things turn out. I remember saying to myself, "New York is the last place I ever want to live." Three years later I was not only living in New York but enjoying it (laughter).

AAJ: Despite your feelings, you can not deny the fact that you were well received here . . .

DP: Yes, that is true. In the end I am really glad that I made the decision to live in New York.

AAJ: New York Times journalist Ben Ratliff described the timing of your arrival (in New York) as "perfect". Do you agree with that statement?

DP: Well, I started feeling that something was pushing me to stay in New York so I just went with the flow. I also felt that it was time for me to make some important decisions about my career.

AAJ: How do you feel about New York now?

DP: I feel good. I am doing what I like to do. I am playing with people I admire. I am performing avant-garde jazz, straight ahead jazz, Latin music, classical music and I also compose music for dance, etc. All and all, it has been a great experience.

AAJ: Let¹s discuss your style of drumming. Eddie Palmieri referred to you as "a rhythmic stimulus who comprehends the two most incredibly difficult rhythmic genres, Cuban (Latin) music and jazz." What is the difference between drumming in a jazz context and in a Cuban (Latin) context?

DP: In my opinion, drumming is mostly about attitude. I have all of the rhythms internalized. When I play, I use different methods to motivate myself. For example, when I think of swing I think of Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Jeff Tain Watts and Jack DeJohnette. However, for me there is little or no difference between the two styles. In the end its all about attitude.

AAJ: Undoubtedly, there are drummers who are highly proficient in one area yet weak in another area. . .

DP: Perhaps they feel more comfortable playing in a certain context. I don't feel that way.

AAJ: Obviously, you have mastered the rhythms to such a degree that they have become second nature. How do you feel when you hear it said that you are revolutionizing the art of drumming? Do you feel that you have created something that has never been done before?

DP: Let me put it this way, I worked something out and this is the consequence of my actions. I always wanted to do something different with the drums. I never wanted to be (sound) like anyone. You know, as a composer I like to study and listen all kinds of music. That gives me a lot of different strategies to work with when I am in front of the drum set. I guess whatever you said about revolutionizing the art of drumming is the consequence of what I have been working on over the years. There is nothing that comes to you and says "this is what you are going to be." You have to work for it and decide how you want to sound. It is a conscious choice not to be like anyone else. After all, life is about making choices. For example, do you want to smoke or not? Do you want to have a drink or not? Do you want to go out or not? It is all a matter of making choices and deciding what you want to do with your life.

AAJ: In hindsight, how important has the Jazz Gallery been in the development of your career?

DP: It has been one of the most important, if not the most important place in New York for me. It is a venue that has always opened its doors to me and given me the artistic freedom to do whatever it is I want to do.

AAJ: As venues go, the Jazz Gallery remains the exception to the rule.

DP: You know how it is with most jazz clubs, it is all about money. . .

AAJ: Yes, money talks and ----- walks! (Laughter). On another note, let' s discuss your debut as a leader and your new recording About The Monks.

DP: About the Monks is dedicated to the many people and artists who have inspired my soul. To my way of thinking, they are Monks. Meaning, they are dedicated, disciplined, and are giving persons with a lot of willpower and a mission in life. That is the meaning of this title.

AAJ: When I first heard your album I thought, this is definitely not a run-of-the-mill, commercial recording. Obviously there were little or no creative restrictions. I should also mention that you composed all of the tunes for this recording. Let' s begin by going track by track. About the Monks (track #1) is self-explanatory. How about (track #2) Tumba Francesa?

DP: The idea comes from Tumba Francesa. French/Haitian percussion with voices. This the music that emigrated to the eastern part of Cuba from Haiti. I was listening to this tune where there was singing on top of the rhythm. So I actually grabbed some of those melodies and arranged them in a different rhythmic structure.

AAJ: I noticed that your music goes through a lot of rhythmic changes (sections). The arrangements are quite complex. How about (track #3) Ironico Arlequin?

DP: (Laughs) Before I go any further, I want to mention two artists who have influenced me as a composer. Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti. Back when I was listening to Chick Corea, Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, then I was introduced to the music of Pascoal and Gismonti by Carlos Maza, a Chilean pianist who resides in Cuba. He was into the avant-garde scene and was combining avant-garde jazz with Latin American rhythms. You cannot imagine what its like when you only know one color and all of a sudden you see (and hear) another color! You keep wondering how it is possible that something could be so different. Listening to Coltrane, Ornette, Miles and Chick Corea, then listening to Pascoal and Gismonti. It was completely different from anything I had ever heard before. Pascoal and Gismonti really inspired me. At the time my dream was to perform with them, I actually memorized all of their tunes . . .

AAJ: Have you ever had the pleasure of performing with Pascoal or Gismonti?

DP: The second time I met Hermeto was three months ago. I was playing with Steve Coleman and we performed a double-bill with Pascoal in Brazil. He is a lovely guy.

AAJ: Back to Ironic Arlequin . . .

DP: It' s very Latin because it includes cascara and clave. It has kind of a tumbao feel inside then it opens up. I prefer not to stay in the typical Latin mode . . .

AAJ: Danzon Santa Clara (track #4) is a homage to your home, Santa Clara, Cuba. How about (track #5) On and on?

DP: This tune has various sections. It reminds me of people you meet that never stop. It could be in a good way or a bad way but they never stop having something to say. The tune starts out one way then goes in another direction. The solo section is harmonically related but not rhythmically related.

AAJ: Mechanical Movement (track #7)?

DP: The tune is dedicated to my wife, Judith, I had the idea of this music from a dance piece that we were working together. I started writing the tune and at the same time there was a composer¹s competition in Spain. I finished it, submitted the piece and it won an award. One of the artists who influenced me to write this type of material is Henry Threadgill. It is very polyphonic, one melody against the other, sort of contrapunto,

AAJ: Interrupted Question (track #8)?

DP: Interrupted Question and Tumba Francesa are two of my early compositions. Interrupted Question revolves around the interruption of idea's. The tune goes in one direction, is interrupted, then goes in another direction.

AAJ: How about Conga En Ti (track #9). I am really enjoying this tune.

DP: It is all me. I over dubbed the percussion, played the keyboards and the voices mine. I also play the recorder.

AAJ: What about the band members? What did each particular musician bring to the table musically speaking?

DP: I got to know Luis Perdomo and Hans through Yosvany Terry. They have the ability to interpret my music. They can play anything: swing, Latin, straight-ahead jazz.

AAJ: Collectively, your generation seems to be thinking a step ahead of the general public. In your opinion, has your music caught on with the general public?

DP: It is not a new phenomenon. We saw this happen with Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Their music was misunderstood. In my opinion, musicians have the opportunity to educate the public and that is what they should be doing. However, we need the media to help us educate the public as well.

AAJ: Add to this the fact that radio (for the most part) is out of touch . . .

DP: When I was a kid I used to like Julio Iglesias because it was all I knew. It was all I heard on the radio...

AAJ: Undoubtedly, radio has a huge impact. I would like to switch gears and dedicate this segment of the interview to aspiring drummers. Do you have any words of wisdom that you would like to share with them?

DP: Yes. You always see people that inspire you to play. However, you have to see yourself there as well. In other words, you have to visualize and do a lot of work in your head. Your head is what gives you the optimism and the point-of-view to make it. If you feel that drumming is your passion then do it. 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. For example, clave in and of itself is just clave. It is the person who plays the clave that breathes life into it. I have seen people play, what I call "dead clave" (laughter). So the question is, what do you want to do after you learn a particular rhythm? In order to understand rhythm you have to internalize it. The meaning of playing swing is to swing. The meaning of clave is to play WITH the clave. It is an attitude. That is the essence of music. I listen to folk music from Asia, Africa, Indonesia and various parts of the globe. When I listen, I attempt to capture the essence of what the musicians are attempting to do. The rhythm is a way to say something but it is how your interpretation that makes all the difference.

AAJ: Are there any young drummers that grab your attention?

DP: There are a lot of young drummers out there. I like Eric Harlem, he is very musical and I like his attitude. Also the nephew of drummer Roy Haynes, Marcus Gilmore. He is playing around.

AAJ: What kind of music do you listen to in your spare time?

DP: Man, that is a hard one. Whenever I can, I listen to Silvio Rodriguez. I also like Caetano Veloso (his early music) and Hermeto Pascoal. I also listen to folk music: African, Indonesian and Indian music for professional purposes. I have a bunch of cassette tapes that I still listen too ...

AAJ: About The Monks is currently set to be released in February (2005). The CD release party will be held at the Jazz Gallery on February 18th and 19th. Can the CD be purchased anywhere prior to its release?

DP: Yes, the CD is available through my website and the Zoho Music website .

AAJ: What is currently on the agenda for Dafnis Prieto?

DP: I am going to Uruguay with Michel Camilo ...

AAJ: I caught you earlier this year with Michel and Charlie Flores at Lincoln Center. Great show. Will you be traveling with the same group?

DP: Yes. I just started learning Michel's music. The performance at Lincoln Center was my third gig with him.

AAJ: Will you be recording with Michel?

DP: At the moment we do not have any plans to record, however, we will be performing at the Blue Note (New York) in April. After that I will be recording with Conjure (Kip Hanrahan). The recording is going to be a drummer' s delight. It will feature Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, Robby Ameen, Richie Flores, Milton Cardona and myself.

AAJ: Sounds like it is going to be on the order of Kip Hanrahan's "Deep Rumba." On a more personal note, are you able to visit Cuba? If so, how does it feel when you go home?

DP: I visited Cuba in May. I went there to introduce Lucian (my son) to my mother. I have no desire to live in Cuba, however, I enjoy visiting, seeing my friends and the nature of Cuba.

AAJ: Do your relatives and friends have any idea of how much you have accomplished in the U. S.?

DP: Some of the people in my neighborhood still call me by my nickname, "Kiki" (laughter). Actually, I go to Cuba to visit my mom. One of the things that I am happy and proud of is the fact that I am my mother's only son and I understand what she is feeling. Meaning, the price that we are both paying for my being here. I make every effort to demonstrate to my mother that I am doing something worthwhile with my life. I am all my mother has so there has to be a good reason for me to be here. I think she understands.

AAJ: The price, meaning, the fact that you are not able to be with your family? Do you think your mother would ever consider living in the U.S.?

DP: She has an upcoming interview for a visa in January. I want to bring her to New York and show her around. Judith¹s mom came here last year. As far as my mother living here? Probably not.

AAJ: So getting back to 2004, its been a good year, yes?

DP: Yes, its been a good year. I am very happy about my new album.

AAJ: Dafnis, it has been a pleasure meeting you and speaking with you. In addition it has been a pleasure meeting your wife Judith and your son Lucian. Continued success and thank you for speaking with All About Jazz.

Visit Dafnis Prieto on the web at www.dafnisprieto.com .

Photo Credit
Anja Hitzenberger

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