Star drummer from Cuba makes Miami debut

After hearing him power the groups behind Latin pop-rock superstar Carlos Santana, Cuban pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Spanish pop singer-songwriter Alejandro Sanz, it’s hard to imagine Cuban drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernández doing anything quietly. And yet, two years ago, he discreetly settled in South Florida.

On Saturday, Hernández will celebrate a homecoming of sorts when he appears with his European-based band, Italuba, in its U.S. debut at the North Shore Bandshell in Miami Beach as part of Global Cuba Fest.

“I am very, very excited and so happy about it,” Hernández said in an interview at his place on the Beach. “Italuba is a band born by the grace of the gods of music. Even the name [a punny nod to Italy and Cuba] dropped out from the sky. … Our first record [in 2004] got a lot of exposure and interest, and we spent three years on the road in Europe. We did more than 200 concerts. But because [the members of Italuba] are all Cubans, it was very hard to bring them into the United States. So we are doubly excited because we are finally playing in the States and it’s in Miami Beach, my new home.”

One of the most in-demand drummers in pop, rock and Latin jazz, Hernández, 49, was born in Havana. His grandfather was a professional trumpeter in his youth, and his father “was the biggest jazz lover I’ve ever met,” he says. “It was his passion. He hosted a radio show for almost 30 years. It was the best channel Cuban musicians had to connect with jazz.

“My grandfather was totally into traditional Cuban music, which for me growing up was the music of old people. My father’s music was the music of crazy people,” he recalls with a chuckle. “I mean, Coltrane? When you are a little kid that’s hard to assimilate. And then there was my brother, who’s older than me, listening to The Beatles and the Stones. I grew up listing to Art Blakey, Buddy Rich, Philly Joe Jones and Ringo Starr — and that’s how I got into music and into drumming.”

Hernández graduated from the National School of the Arts, and did his own post-graduate studies as a drummer in the recording studios of EGREM, Cuba’s national company.

During the day, there were sessions for “the regular records, the pop singers, and late at night they let us make our records.” That, he says, is how major Cuban jazz figures such as Rubalcaba and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval recorded their first albums.

“And I was there all day, recording,” he says. “There was a mattress to crash on so I would sleep a couple of hours after the day sessions, get up and record jazz at night. It was a great experience. There is no better school for a musician than to learn to work in the studio.”

Close your eyes when Hernández is in full flight, and you think you are hearing a percussion section playing layers of grooves, accents and time signatures, both driving and framing the music.

He seamlessly blends jazz drumming and Afro-Cuban percussion techniques.

“The drum set is a North American instrument born in the late ’20s, early ’30s, and by then in Cuba we had 15 or more percussion instruments: congas, bongos, timbales, chekere, guiro, you name it,” he says. “So our very first drummers, the way they approached this new instrument, was bringing the various percussion instruments into the sound of the drum set.

“There is a picture of Candido Camero in 1933, he’s 92 years old now and still playing like a kid, with a conga, a hi-hat and a pedal with a cowbell. And then came Walfredo de los Reyes Sr. the first one to integrate the congas and the drum kit. He played the congas with one hand and the drums with the other.”

Few in modern Cuban music advanced these ideas further than Enrique Plá, drummer for the fabled Afro-Cuban jazz-rock group Irakere.

“Enrique was my biggest influence,” Hernández says. “My father was very good friends with him, with all the musicians of Irakere actually, and I practically grew up backstage with Irakere. I was there since I was 3 years old. And I wanted to be Enrique Plá. When I saw him I knew that what I wanted to do. I never took any lessons with him, but I took every lesson I could by watching and listening.”

Hernández put those lessons to good use, catching the ear of many in the jazz world with Rubalcaba’s Proyecto, a high-energy fusion group. In 1990, while on a tour of Italy, Hernández asked for asylum. Denied a U.S. visa, he remained in Italy for three years. The day after finally arriving in the States, he flew to Miami to record the 40 Years of Cuban Jam Session with Paquito D’Rivera.

Italuba was born of a chance encounter on a return trip to Italy a few years later. He was expecting to do drumming workshops, but once there, he found announcements of a concert with his band — “except I didn’t have a band. I never ever had been a band leader.”

After a “disastrous” night jamming with local musicians, Hernández accepted an invitation to play in Turin. There, he met bassist Daniel Martinez, a fellow Cuban exile. “He’s almost 10 years younger than me and knew about me from my instructional videos,” Hernández says. “We talked, I told him about the problem of the commitments for a band that didn’t exist and he said he knew a great piano player and a trumpet player. He called them, we got together the next day and it was love at first sight.”

The group — with Amik Guerra on trumpet, Ivan Bridon on piano and Martinez on bass — went on to record two strong albums of Afro-Cuban jazz rock fusion. At the time they met, all but Hernández lived in Turin. These days only Martinez remains in Italy.

“The past two years we have all been very busy doing other projects. But we play every year in Europe,” Hernández says. “So this is going to be the rebirth of Italuba — in the United States, for the very first time.”