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Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez

Horacio Hernandez Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez is a thirty-one year old Cuban-born phenomenon, a gifted drummer who represents a new generation of great musicians following in the footsteps of countrymen Arturo Sandoval, Ignacio Berroa, Daniel Ponce, Paquito D'Rivera, and others. Hernandez plays on the cutting edge of today's music with technical prowess and purpose. His drumming also reflects a proud musical heritage rooted in folklore tradition.
Horacio first gained international recognition as the drummer for the extraordinary pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba and his group Proyecto. This band's electrifying performances captured the attention of audiences around the world. Hernandez combined his musical skills with his dynamic playing to help propel Proyecto to a position of being one of Cuba's top contemporary bands. Since leaving Cuba, Hernandez has made a name for himself in the U.S. with his playing on Paquito D'Rivera's Forty Years of Cuban Jam Sessions, Ed Simon's Beauty Within, and Victor Mendoza's This Is Why. Hernandez was born in Havana in 1963. "I grew up in a very musical family", he says. "My grandfather played trumpet with various bands including the Septeto Nacional [traditional Cuban band famous since 1920s]. He was the traditional Cuban influence in the family. My father was a real jazz buff who hosted jazz programs on the local radio stations. My brother was always into rock music, like the Beatles. It was difficult for me to play my records at home," Horacio laughs, "because everybody else in the family was playing their music."
(Incidentally, "El Negro" - the black - was a nickname given to Horacio even before he was born. It was a sign of affection for a little black boy who lived next door and was best friends with Hernandez's brother.) Horacio's inclination towards drumming was evident at an early age. "We were fortunate to have a lot of instruments in our house," he recalls, "thanks to my grandfather. We had small hand percussion instruments and even a piano. But I never had a drumset when I was young. In Cuba, even if you could afford to buy a drumset, it was very difficult o locate one. When I finally got a set, I practiced all day long. I practiced along to the radio, listening to people like Tony Williams and Billy Cobham. I had no idea about foot technique or double bass drums. I just tried to copy what I heard on the radio".
Hernandez's enthusiasm for drumming grew, and eventually he studied with two of Cuba's finest teachers. "My first teacher was Fausto Garcia Rivera," says Horacio. "He was a show drummer who had studied in the United States with Henry Adler and George Lawrence Stone. At that time in Cuba, Fausto was the only teacher with that kind of information, so we worked mainly on snare drum reading and technique. We read from Stick Control, the Buddy Rich book, the Podemski book, and some great Russian books."
"My other teacher was Enrique Pla [of the famous Cuban jazz group Irakere]. He was one of the best drumset players in Cuba at that time. My father always encouraged me to hear Irakere play live, and Enrique's playing was very inspirational to me. We used to listen to him play at a club in Havana called Johnny's Dream. All the great musicians - like Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D'Rivera - jammed there."
Hernandez continued to broaden his education by enrolling on the prestigious National School of Arts in Havana. "They taught us classical music, timpani, mallets, and snare drum," he recalls, "but they would not teach timbales, conga drum, or the drumset. They considered the timbales and conga drum 'street music,' while the drumset...that was American![laughs] But when the teacher would leave the room we would set up all the concert instruments like a drumset and play rock music. Most of the students were more into rock music than classical."
Horacio's first professional break came while he was still attending school. "I got a job playing with a well-known saxophonist named Nicolas Reynoso," he says. "We played mostly jazz. Gonzalo Rubalcaba was the pianist in the band." Hernandez stayed with Reynoso about one and a half years, developing a reputation as a uniquely talented and versatile drummer.
Opportunity knocked once again for Hernandez when he was asked to take over the chair of session great Ignacio Berroa at EGREM Studios, one of Cuba's largest recording studios. "The studio is where I learned the most," remarks Hernandez. "I played twenty hours a day, in every style, with all kinds of bands. I must have recorded hundreds of records for them."
Hernandez soon became first-call session drummer for EGREM. Not long after that he received a call from his old friend and bandmate Gonzalo Rubalcaba. "Gonzalo was putting a group together, and he asked me if I wanted to join," Horacio recalls. "I had to say no because I had an engagement with a woman singer in Nicaragua. After I hung up I thought for a second and said, 'What the hell am I doing?!' So I called Gonzalo right back and said yes!"
Rubalcaba's compositions covered a wide range of styles, from classical Cuban to electric jazz. "Gonzalo's music was the most challenging music I've ever played," admits Hernandez. "He could tell you exactly what he wanted because he was also a drummer. The music was always so original - and written out beautifully. I'd say about half of it was improvised. I almost never played backbeats. I think that I contributed a lot of the jazz feel to the band. The first record we recorded, in 1980, was called Gonzalo Rubalcaba y su Proyecto."
Horacio's career took another leap in 1982 when Arturo Sandoval's band had to cancel an overseas jazz festival appearance due to Sandoval's illness. "We got a call the next day," says Horacio. "We were told to pack our bags, because Proyecto would fill in for Arturo's band. To leave Cuba was an incredible experience for us. It's not like in the U.S., where you can just take a vacation. When we arrived in Holland, everything was so new to me. I walked into this huge hotel - and there in front of me stood Jack DeJohnette! I couldn't believe it; I was overwhelmed!"
The concert was a huge success for Proyecto, and launched them into almost non-stop touring around the world. Hernandez stayed with Gonzalo Rubalcaba for seven years, during which he recorded a total of seven albums and established himself as a world-class drummer. Beyond his remarkable technical and musical skills, he demonstrated a unique ability to adapt the drumset into any style of music. His clever re-voicing of Afro-Cuban folkloric rhythms set new standards for the drumset.
By 1990 Hernandez had decided it was time to move on. He was eager to play with other musicians and pursue musical opportunities outside of Cuba. "In Cuba, work for the musician is really different. You usually stay with the same band all the time." When an opportunity presented itself, Hernandez sought political asylum in Italy, where he played and also taught at the Timba Centro di Percussion in Rome. In 1993 he decided to make the big move to New York City.
"When I arrived in New York," says Horacio, "the first person I called was Paquito D'Rivera. He said, 'Hey! How do you get here?' and I said, 'That doesn't matter. I'm here'. So he said, 'Okay! We have a recording tomorrow!' That turned out to be his Forty Years of Cuban Jam Sessions album."
While Hernandez anxiously awaits citizenship from the United States, his travel is restricted. "That makes it difficult for me because most artists I work with perform overseas," he remarks. However, Hernandez is still keeping a very busy schedule playing live dates and recording with such artists as Dave Valentin, Anthony Jackson, Jerry Gonzalez, Papo Vazquez, Daniel Ponce, Ed Simon and Dizzy Gillespie's United Nations Orchestra led by Paquito D'Rivera. He is also teaching drums at the Boys Harbor Performing Arts Center in New York City, while completing a method book he is very excited about.
"I call it sort of a Latin Gary Chester book" says Hernandez with a grin. "Many of the exercises are aimed at developing a student's independence with authentic Afro-Cuban rhythms. A second part deals with application of these rhythms to the drumset. The material is geared for the intermediate player to the professional and beyond."
Although he cannot return to his country, Horacio feels fortunate to have his artistic freedom and is optimistic about the future. He looks forward to the challenges ahead with the same spirit and courage his countrymen have demonstrated before him.

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