Rare Feet Light Up San Francisco Nights:
The Six Limbs of El Negro
by Wesley Watkins
When Eddie Palmieri, “The Sun of Latin Music”, shines his signature sound on the San Francisco Yoshi’s June 18th – 21st, show-goers will be treated to an exclusive assembly of Latin Jazz luminaries. Among them is one star whose light seldom shines on the Bay Area. Like a comet orbiting the gravitational pull of Palmieri’s 50 years in the business, the Yoshi’s audience will have a rare opportunity to see one of the greatest Afro-Cuban drummers of all time: Horacio “El Negro” Hernández, master of the left foot clave technique.
“He’s one in a million,” says Walfredo Reyes, Sr., another Cuban drum pioneer. Reyes was the first to incorporate Cuban percussion instruments into the traditional jazz drum kit starting in the early 50s. This makes him El Negro’s predecessor in a long line of Cuban rhythmic innovators that includes Candido Camero, the first to trigger the clave pattern on a cow bell by using a foot pedal. Though Reyes has a left foot clave rig on the practice kit in his Bay Area home, he acknowledges El Negro as the foremost expert.
“There are people that try clave on the left foot all over the world, but Negro is exceptional. His clave is so beautiful. Negro maintains that rumba clave so nice and soft–it’s like a dream.”
Even though he is widely considered the reigning king of the left foot clave, try running the word “master” by El Negro and you will be met with a humility truly fitting of the title.
“How can I say I mastered it? It’s so endless–forget about it,” says Hernández. “The beauty of it is that the more you advance the longer you can see. So, you advance this little bit and you see that there’s another mile out there. And then a little bit more, and then four more miles! The more you go, the farther it gets. Forget it!”
Even if rhythmic possibilities are infinite, El Negro is miles ahead of all others who attempt the rhythmic feet (pun intended). What sets his technique apart is the independence of his remaining three limbs while his left foot keeps the clave pattern rock steady. “Other drummers will turn the rumba clave into the son clave [by displacing the third accent in the pattern], but when El Negro puts it in, it stays rumba–and on hard tunes, too! Even odd meters,” marvels Reyes.
In addition to playing the clave pattern, El Negro’s left foot will hop back and forth between the cowbell and hi-hat pedals, making it seem there is someone else playing the bongo bell on the down beats while the hi-hat claps together on two and four. The left foot–almost another member of the band–will also trigger the second bass kick pedal, adding an intense rumble to solos and grooves alike. All the while, El Negro’s other three limbs remain completely free.
But El Negro’s playing is no gimmick. No matter how complex a polyrhythm, each hit is executed with supreme touch. A bell pattern, for example, is played by his right hand as if there were a percussionist on the stand playing just that pattern, never mind the three other instruments that same hand might be hitting to complete the groove, and never mind the other three limbs. He’s also not one to grand-stand. El Negro plays only what the music calls for, and can slip into the background, propelling the music as much through feeling as with sound. This is Afro-Cuban or Latin Jazz, after all. It’s about communication–having a conversation. And to converse with anyone, you must hear them and respond.
This brings us to El Negro’s fifth limb: his ears. Amidst the flurry of magic hands and dancing feet, he is always listening and reacting to other musicians on the stand with the utmost precision, sometimes anticipating where they are headed before they have arrived at the crossroads themselves. El Negro equates this with the independence of his limbs:
“You see, that is coordination. Coordination is not just about your limbs, it is about your ears, too. I mean, you have to play, you have to learn, but it’s about freedom in the end. What we’re learning is freedom. Freedom to do anything you want to do, but you’re listening to what’s happening in the music.”
“There is a teacher, Gary Chester, who wrote an amazing book called The New Breed. He was the first one to create a system of singing on top of all the coordination exercises. So it’s like you are learning another limb, and that was very helpful to keep a channel open for your ears. It teaches you to play and also remain totally alert to anything that is happening around you–and not just listening to the music. You can be listening to the music, and watching a girl, and talking to somebody else about the movie last night, and keep on playing at the same time–keep on rocking it!”
El Negro has developed a book and demonstration DVD, Conversations in Clave, which break down the development of four-way independence in Afro-Cuban rhythms. But don’t think you can buy the book, practice for a while, and come out of the shed charging extra for your left foot at the next gig. It took El Negro five years to get comfortable with the clave as a pattern, and another ten years in order to develop freedom against the pattern. And we’re not talking a few hours a day, either. “You want to know the secret? Practice from eight [am] to eight [pm]!”
This brings us to what I consider El Negro’s sixth limb: his heart, or his love of playing drums. Not surprisingly, this was evident from a very young age. El Negro’s uncle bought him his first drum set when he was only four years old. “I played it so hard that I destroyed it in four days! I was having the best time of my life. I put it in front of the TV–I will never forget–I put the TV to the music program, and right there I put my drums. It was great!” He was gigging professionally as a teenager, and he took over the drum chair from Ignacio Berroa at EGREM Studios in Havana, where for years he recorded 24 hours a day, taking only cat naps on a mattress upstairs between sessions.
“I have never had to force myself to practice or to play–never. There is nothing for me more pleasant than having a coffee in the morning and getting into my studio. And maybe I don’t get into the studio and go to the drums straight away. Maybe I turn on the computer and sit down and listen to what I put down the last time, but sooner or later I say, ‘I wanna play my drums.'”
In fact, El Negro wants to play his drums in a way that no drummer ever has.
“You see, Giovanni [Hidalgo] can play a concert of one hour by himself–easy–and you will be on the edge of your seat the entire time! Zakir [Hussein] also can play for one hour. I think it’s time for us drummers now. Somebody has to make it there: to be able to sit down for one hour and make music like that.”
While Giovanni Hidalgo and Zakir Hussein, the world’s leading conga and tabla masters, respectively, play tuned percussion, El Negro does not see any melodic limitations with the drum kit. He views the piano as 88 drums, and he approaches playing drums as a melodic endeavor, not merely a rhythmic one.
“I like to make music with my instrument, not just use it to accompany somebody rhythmically, but to make melodic music out of it–which I believe is possible. And I know that the possibilities are right there in the drums. I know you can sing a song with just the drums. You have to be a bad mother in the best shape of his life, but it’s possible. It’s endless. All I wish is that I could be in my studio for one year without having to travel. I know that if I could just get in there for one year, I could come out like Einstein!”
El Negro’s rare genius only comes to town maybe once every two to three years. Do not miss this opportunity to see one of the all time drumming greats display his unparalleled ability.
Eddie Palmieri and the Pan-Caribbean Summit featuring David Sanchez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Bryan Lynch, Carlos Henriquez, and Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez
Exclusive engagement only at the San Francisco Yoshi’s
Thursday, June 18th – Sunday, June 21st
Thursday 8pm & 10pm shows $35
Friday and Saturday 8pm & 10pm shows $38
Sunday 2pm matinee $5 (children), $18 (adult with child), $38 (general adult)
Sunday 7pm show $38