A dialogue with Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez: from his prenatal jazz exposure to his most recent globetrotting adventures.
After his defection from Castro's "workers paradise," El Negro has recorded and/or performed with numerous U.S.-based artists of great prominence, including but not limited to Dizzy Gillespie, Paquito D'Rivera, Jerry Gonzalez, Dave Valentin, McCoy Tyner, Dave Samuels, Regina Carter, John Patitucci, Joanne Brackeen, Jack Bruce, Steve Winwood, Tito Puente, Giovanni Hidalgo, Michel Camilo, Carlos Santana, Eddie Palmieri, Ed Simon, Papo Vazquez, Kip Hanrahan, Rebeca Mauleon, Santi Debriano, Chico O'Farrill, Ruben Blades, Robby Ameen, Juan Pablo Torres, Juan Carlos Formell, and the Tropijazz All-Stars. Nevertheless, El Negro's unique skills as sole musical protagonist were not documented until the release of his Italuba sessions, recorded by El Negro and three other Cuban expatriates in the northern Italian city of Turin: Italuba I (Pimienta, 2004) and Italuba II (Cacao Musica, 2006).
The following conversation with one of the greatest Latin American trap drummers of our times was conducted at a luxurious hotel located near the Hollywood Bowl, shortly before his scheduled appearance with Eddie Palmieri at the 2006 Playboy Jazz Festival ...
LUIS TAMARGO: You were prenatally exposed to jazz through your father, Horacio Hernandez Sr. Helio Orovio, the author of "The Dictionary of Cuban Music" told me that your father even knew the color of the shoes worn by John Coltrane during the initial recording of Naima (LAUGHTER).
HORACIO HERNANDEZ: He instilled into my heart the love of music, in general. Since my childhood, I've been surrounded by music; my life is all about music. I'm also related to the Hernandez dynasty of great Cuban bassists. Papito and Kike (Hernandez) had already left the island by the early 1960s, but Felo (Hernandez) remained in Havana, and he was a highly respected bass player.
LT: In the early years of your career, you performed with Havana's most prominent rock'n'roll groups, including Almas Vertiginosas (Vertiginous Souls).
HH: Yes. I was playing with Almas Vertiginosas at Santa Fe's Salon Patria o Muerte (Motherland or Death Dancehall), a two-story social club whose rear section was hanging on top of the sea, when the place was really jumping on this particular night, and Ramiro Valdes (head of the Castroite secret police) and his tropas especiales (special troops) suddenly arrived on their speedboats, with machine guns and spotlights. Everyone was arrested and taken to Villa Marista (the secret police head-quarters), where I spent two weeks and the group s vocalist was detained for 45 days. They confiscated all our instruments and our group came to an end ... But it is definitely a small world in terms of life's twists and turns. One of the tunes that we were playing that night was Jack Bruce's White Room, and about twenty-something years later, I started playing with Jack Bruce, with whom I've played drums during the last five or six years, while participating in his two most recent recordings.
LT: Back in Havana, did you work with a quintet led by saxophonist Nicolas "El Negro" Reynoso, the forgotten founder of Afrocuba?
HH: Yes, after he was removed from the first version of Afrocuba and assigned to play with his quintet at the Habana Libre (formerly Habana Hilton) Hotel's Las Canitas club. This quintet, by the way, featured Gonzalo Rubalcaba on piano. This gig was sort of an ever-evolving musical workshop because all of the musicians in town, including Paquito D'Rivera and Emiliano Salvador, came to jam at Las Canitas.
LT: Paquito has categorized El Negro Reynoso as "a cross between a literary expert and a street rumba dancer."
HH: Yes. He was a very well educated character who even explored the fields of theatre and cinema. He is now residing in Uruguay, where he married one of the natives. I acquired an entirely marvelous education with that group and learned to play many standards, but the day came when El Negro Reynoso was told that he was no longer allowed to play at Las Canitas and I had to work for a while with the rock band Montes de Espuma ... By that time, I was already working also for EGREM as a studio musician, almost daily, along with pianist Hilario Duran and bassist Jorge Reyes. The three of us participated in at least 300 or 400 recordings made in Cuba between 1986 and 1989.
I kept my own catre (camp bed) at the EGREM studios, where I slept for a couple of hours between sessions. This EGREM tenure allowed me to truly improve my reading skills, while learning to work swiftly with diverse arrangers.
LT: Then you joined Gonzalo Rubalcaba's Grupo Proyecto.
HH: Yes. Gonzalo asked me by telephone to join his band and I initially turned him down because I was scheduled to tour the then Sandinista-ruled country of Nicaragua with a troubadour named Donato Poveda. Right after I hung up, I started to have second thoughts and said to myself, "Hey, are you some kind of comemierda (idiot)? Forget about Nicaragua?" (LAUGHTER). So I immediately called him back and said, "Forget about what I said earlier. I'm the one you need?" I regard my tenure with Gonzalo as the most important chapter in my career. In addition to his virtuous personality, Gonzalo is a very complicated character. He is very well aware of the basic form and substance of his musical labor. From the very beginning, it was a challenge to play with Gonzalo, whose scores required plenty of homework.
LT: I had the pleasure of writing the liner notes for a couple of Grupo Proyecto sessions recorded in the 1980s and reissued by Messidor in the following decade as compact discs--Live in Havana (1986-1994) and Mi Gran Pasion (1988-1991). I feel that Mi Gran Pasion is the best album ever recorded by Gonzalo Rubalcaba, with or without Grupo Proyecto. Do you agree?
HH: Yes. He managed to rescue the danzon, which was hopelessly lost at that time. Nobody noticed because he was very young; he was only 23 years old, and no one was willing to give recognition to his accomplishments. Mi Gran Pasion revealed his danzon lineage. Musically speaking, it was the most important album of his entire career as a bandleader ... Gonzalo taught (Roberto) Vizcaino and I to utilize our percussive devices as true musical instruments, creating orchestral colors.
LT: When you defected in Italy, circa 1990, Gonzalo was forced to conduct the only drum-less tour of his career. He must have been upset.
HH: But this was only one of multiple consequences, Luis. We started out as a group of seven, and the seven of us stayed and traveled together, sharing la peste'a pata (the foul smell of our stinking feet) for about six or seven years (LAUGHTER), thus becoming a true musical family, and all of a sudden, Gonzalo began to tire one or another for reasons that didn't have anything to do with music. By the time the septet was reduced to a quintet, I was reminded of an old proverb: "When the next house is on fire, it's high time to look to your own." After Vizcaino was terminated, I thought, "Hey, wait a minute! What if this guy decides to fire me tomorrow?"
LT: You arrived in the U.S. in 1993.
HH: Yes. I had sent my former girlfriend, about three weeks earlier, to rent an apartment in New York's East Village. Shortly after I arrived at the apartment, she said, "Negro, I'm going to the store to buy some beer so we can celebrate this occasion. A few minutes after she left, I heard the ring of the doorbell downstairs, and when I asked (in my broken English), "Who is it?" the guy replied, "The exterminator!" Back in Cuba, we were under the impression that un exterminador (an exterminator) was un asesino (an assassin); I was not aware that in the U.S., an exterminator was really a fumigator, so I thought, "Hey, I just got here and they're already coming to do me in!" You know how it is when you arrive here with the post-trauma created by the tall tales about the U.S. that they constantly tell you in Cuba. When I asked him again, "Who is it?" he responded in a rather angry manner: "I told you it's the exterminator!!" That's when I barricaded the front door with any piece of furniture available in that apartment (LAUGHTER). You can imagine my ex-girlfriend's reaction when she returned from the store with the beer and I told her, running with sweat, "There was a guy who came here to kill me?" (LAUGHTER). After we consumed a few beers, I called Paquito (D'Rivera) and told him, "Paquito, I'm here!" He answered, "I'm going to Miami tomorrow to record an album, and you must come with me." This is how I participated in the recording of Paquito's Forty Years of Cuban Jam Sessions (Messidor, 1993) the day after I arrived in the U.S. This session featured various Cuban music legends (Cachao, Chocolate, Chombo Silva, etc) and I was paid very well by Paquito, so I thought that I was already in paradise ... About three years later, the doors were opened a little wider after I became a permanent resident of the U.S. and was able to start touring abroad.
LT: You have visited innumerable nations. Could you identify the countries that you have enjoyed the most?
HH: This is a difficult question. I certainly left my heart in Italy, where I was treated very well by the natives, but I also enjoy traveling to Spain, particularly after I met Fernando Trueba, who has done so much for our music ... My answer to your question should be Italy, Spain, and Reunion. During the past two years, I have traveled, on four different occasions, to Reunion, an island located in the Indian Ocean. It's like being back in Cuba? It's a delightful island! As a matter of fact, I recently recorded an album with a talented pianist from Reunion named Meddy Gerubille.
Horacio Hernandez plays Pearl drums and Zildjian cymbals Horacio's kit:
A. 22x16 bass drum
B. 10x8 tom
C. 12x8 tom
D. 14x12 tom
E. 16x14 tom
F. 14x5.5 snare drum
G. 10x6 Popcorn snare
H. H2000 hi-hat stand
I. CLH1000 closed hit-hat
J. PBL20 medium clave block
K. PBL30 low clave block
L. Horacio Sig. Cowbells
M. P2002C double pedal
N. DR503 ICON rack