The New York Times recently compared Dafnis Prieto’s arrival in the U.S. to “an asteroid hitting New York.” In a relatively short period, Dafnis Prieto’s revolutionary drumming techniques have had an extraordinary impact on the Latin and jazz music scene as well as 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 classical education, and an ever-broadening knowledge of Afro-Cuban music, jazz, and world music.
Dafnis has accumulated over ten years of experience as a professional musician. Also, he has toured Europe with a succession of talented pianists, including Carlos Maza, Ramon Valle, and the groundbreaking group, “Columna B.”
Also, he 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 his debut recording as a leader.
Tomas Peña: What was it like growing up in Santa Clara, Cuba?
Dafnis Prieto: I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood surrounded by music. Music was everywhere; on the radio and in the streets. From my home, I heard the comparsas (carnivals) rehearsing nearby or in front of my house.
How old were you?
I was six or seven years old. Whenever the comparsas rehearsed in front of my house, my mother would get nervous. She knew I was about to get lost (laughter). Invariably, I would always find a way to sneak out 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 primary Cuban rhythms – son, guaracha, etc. I started as a guitarist. It¹s funny the way things turn out. There were six guitar students. At one point, the professor decided to start a band, and he asked us to pick an instrument (other than the guitar). As fate would have it, I chose 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’s when I began to take drumming seriously.
You developed an affinity for jazz at an early age.
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. I used to listen to Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” every day. I also started exploring the music of India because I heard that there was a relationship between Coltrane’s music and Indian music. Then I started listening to Ornette Coleman. Also, from the beginning, I was influenced by (the drummer) Elvin Jones. For my graduation ceremony, I put together a group and composed and performed a new piece. The group consisted of four horns, bass, and me on the traps, kettle drums, and whistle. At the time, it was a revolutionary concept.
How was the performance received?
Good, people liked it; but, I don’t think they understood the concept. They had no idea that John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman influenced me, but it was fun. Also, it allowed me to create music and perform it with my friends. Some of them went on to play with Irakere, etc.
You’ve said you felt that there was “nowhere to go” with your music in Cuba. Is that why you migrated to the United States?
There are other reasons. However, I was feeling a bit suffocated, musically speaking. The 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 minimal, and it is tough 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 rooms.
At some point, you became involved with Jane Bunnett & the Spirits of Havana and traveled to Canada and the U. S.
I got involved with Jane Bunnet 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 that I would not return to Cuba. So I stayed in Spain for one year. During that time Jane Bunnet invited me to tour Canada and the U.S. Also, I applied for a visa to return to Barcelona, but I was denied. The situation forced me to consider living in New York. I had visited New York with “Columna B.” We performed at the Knitting Factory and the Zinc Bar, among other places.
Columna B is one of my favorite Cuban bands. What year was that?
1996. Those were good times.
Who were the original members of Columna B?
The original members were Roberto Carcasses, Yosvany Terry, Descemer Bueno, and myself. It was a quartet, but we featured guests such as Don Pancho Terry and Miguel Anga. The first album was recorded in Cuba and released in Barcelona, Spain, but it’s not unavailable. As for New York, at first, I didn’t like it.
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 I was enjoying it (laughter).
The U.S. and New York welcomed you with open arms.
Yes, that is true. I’m glad I decided to live in New York.
The New York Times journalist Ben Ratliff described the timing of your arrival (in New York) as “perfect.” Would you agree?
I started feeling that something was pushing me to stay, so I just went with the flow. I also thought that it was time for me to make some critical decisions about my career.
How do you feel about New York now?
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.
Let’s talk about drumming. Eddie Palmieri referred to you as “a rhythmic stimulus who comprehends the two most incredibly difficult rhythmic genres, Cuban (Latin) music and jazz.”
In my opinion, drumming is mostly about attitude. I have 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. In the end, it’s all about attitude.
You’ve mastered the rhythms to such a degree they are second nature. How do you feel when you hear people say you are revolutionizing the art of drumming?
I’ll 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 like anyone. Like a composer, I like to study and listen to 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.
In hindsight, how important has the Jazz Gallery been in the development of your career?
It has been one of the most important, if not the most critical place in New York for me. It has always opened its doors to me and given me the artistic freedom to do whatever I want to do.
As venues, go it is the exception to the rule.
With most jazz clubs, it is all about money.
Exactly! Tell me about the new recording and your debut as a leader.
About the Monks is dedicated to the people and artists who inspire my soul. To my way of thinking, they are Monks. Meaning, they are dedicated, disciplined, and giving persons with a lot of willpower and a mission in life. That’s what the title signifies.
It’s certainly not a “commercial” recording. Also, you composed all the material. Let’s go through the tracks.
The idea comes from Tumba Francesa and French/Haitian percussion with voices. This is the music that migrated 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 grabbed some of those melodies and arranged them in a different rhythmic structure.
Your music goes through a lot of rhythmic changes. Also, the arrangements are complex. Tell me about the tune, Ironico Arlequin?
(Laughs) Before I go any further, I want to mention two artists who have influenced me as a composer. Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti. When I listened to Chick Corea, Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, then I was introduced to the music of Pascoal and Gismonti by the Chilean pianist, Carlos Maza, 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 it is like when you only know one color, and all of a sudden, you see (and hear) another color! You keep wondering how 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 inspired me. At the time, my dream was to perform with them.
Getting back to the tune, Ironic Arlequin.
It’ s very Latin because it includes cascara and clave. It has a tumbao feel inside then it opens up. I prefer not to stay in a typical Latin mode.
Danzon Santa Clara pays tribute to your hometown. How about On and On?
The tune has various sections. It reminds me of people you meet that never stop. It could be in a good or bad way, but they never stop having something to say. The tune starts one way then goes in another direction. The solo section is harmonically related but not rhythmically related.
It’s dedicated to my wife, Judith. I got the idea from a dance piece we were working on. 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’s very polyphonic, one melody against the other, sort of contrapuntal.
Interrupted Question and Tumba Francesa are two of my early compositions. It revolves around the interruption of ideas. The tune goes in one direction, is disrupted, and goes in another direction.
I am enjoying the tune, Conga En Ti.
It’s all me! I overdubbed the percussion, played the keyboards, and the voices are mine. I also play the recorder.
Tell me about the band.
I met Luis Perdomo through Hans Glawischnig and Yosvany Terry. They know how to interpret my music. They can play anything.
Your generation seems to be thinking a step ahead of the general public. Do you feel it’s caught on with the public?
It’s not a new phenomenon. It happened with Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. They were 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 inform the public as well.
What advice do you have for aspiring drummers?
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. Concerning 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? To understand rhythm, you have to internalize it. The meaning of playing swing is to swing. The meaning of the 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 hear, I attempt to capture the essence of what the musicians are trying to do. The rhythm is a way to say something, but it’s the interpretation that makes the difference.
Are there any emerging drummers that capture your attention?
There are a lot of young drummers. I like Eric Harlem, he’s very musical and I like his attitude. Also, Marcus Gilmore.
What kind of music do you listen to in your spare time?
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.
About The Monks comes out in February. Also, the CD release party will happen at the Jazz Gallery on February 18th and 19th. What ‘s next?
I am going to Uruguay with Michel Camilo.
I caught you earlier this year with Michel and (bassist) Charlie Flores at Lincoln Center.
The performance at Lincoln Center was my third gig with Michel.
Will you record it with Michel?
At the moment, we don’t 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 Kip Hanrahan.
On a personal note, do you visit Cuba?
I visited 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.
Do your relatives and friends in Cuba understand how much you’ve accomplished in the short time you’ve been here?
Some of the people in my neighborhood still call me by my nickname, “Kiki” (laughter). 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 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.
So getting back to 2004, its been a good year, yes?
Yes, it has been a good year. Also, I am pleased with the new album!
Taking the Soul for a Walk
Si o Si Quartet – Live at the Jazz Standard
Dafnis Prieto Proverb Trio
Triangles and Circles
Back to the Sunset (Grammy Award-Winner)
Up & Coming Musician of the Year (2006)
Grammy nomination, Best New Artist (2007)
Mac Arthur Fellowship Award (2011)
Grammy Award for Best Latin Jazz Album Back to the Sunset (2018)
In 2016 Prieto published the groundbreaking analytical instructional drum book titled A World of Rhythmic Possibilities. In 2020 he will publish Rhythmic Synchronicity, a rhythmic course for non-drummers.
Prieto is the founder of the independent music company Dafnison Music. He endorses Yamaha Drums, Sabian Cymbals, Latin Percussion, Evans Drumheads, and Vic Firth Sticks.