Miami is the quintessential melting-pot city, where no one blinks when a country-hip-hop ditty like Pitbull’s “Timber” tops the charts.
But simplicity can be deceiving, and the drummer/ musical director in charge of making the rapper’s multicultural style sound perfectly natural calls on years of experience to make it happen.
As musical director for the Miami rapper Pitbull, Omar Tavarez understands the unique perspective that being behind the drumkit brings. “We’re already thinking patterns in our heads, and we apply that to melodic music—and it’s great,” he says. “I think drummers understand form faster than most other instrumentalists, because we’re the foundation.”
Tavarez is also well aware of the value of versatility, and formative years in Miami were spent sharpening his multifaceted drumming skills to a point. Omar was born in New York City in 1983, and when he was three years old his parents, Frank and Lelia, moved the family to Florida. In middle school Tavarez played French horn and drums, and at eleven he began studying with University of Miami grad Jack Ciano, a no-nonsense teacher and veteran of Grammy-winning pop singer Jon Secada’s band. “Jack’s a great musician,” Tavarez says, “and he’s the one who basically explained to me, ‘You want to survive in this city? You need to learn a lot of styles of music.’”
Studies with Jazz in America cofounder JB Dyas at Miami Dade Community College prepared Tavarez for the vaunted music program at the University of Miami, whose instructors included Bee Gees drummer Steve Rucker, famed symphonic percussionist Ney Rosauro, and award-winning Icelandic jazz drummer Einar Scheving. In 2008 Tavarez was recruited by Pitbull’s manager to be the foundation of the style-melding rapper’s first live band, and he’s held that chair ever since. Omar has also developed a presence in the studio, recording with the rappers Lil Wayne and T-Pain. He’s branched out into production and artist development as well, founding the Dirty Southaners team with fellow South Florida musician Aaron Fishbein. We begin our conversation with the drummer by tracing the path of his multidirectional career.
MD: Did you grow up hearing a lot of music in your house?
Omar: Absolutely. I think that’s the reason I became a musician. Mom and Dad grew up with great music. And because my parents are bilingual—they’re Dominican-American—they were playing all styles of music. My dad was playing Miles records, Thelonious Monk. At the same time he was hip to what was going on in pop, which at the time was disco. And I grew up with my mom singing in the car—and not really singing the melody; she would sing the harmony. Her ear was trained. My parents don’t play instruments, but they’re really into folkloric music. My ears were fed so much music, which was really cool.
MD: Why do you think you initially gravitated toward drums?
Omar: When we moved to Miami, my next-door neighbor was an eighteenyear- old Colombian kid who had a drumset, and he would play along with recordings, like Metallica. He was a big metalhead. I’d hear him practicing. He gave me a snare drum as a birthday gift when I was four or five years old, and I was banging the heck out of that. Mom was like, “I don’t know what’s wrong—the kid just doesn’t stop.” So my parents figured, “Let’s get him a drum instructor and maybe he’ll just calm down and focus.”
MD: When did you begin to think of drumming as a career?
Omar: It was two things, actually. It was my drum teacher getting pissed off at me when I walked into a lesson unprepared, sending me home and saying, “Look, your dad spends money for you to be here. You don’t want to waste your dad’s money. That’s not cool, so this lesson is done.” I was like, “Man, this cat just reamed me out; I have to step it up.” So I came back to the lesson a week later, had all the stuff prepared, and said, “Look, I really want to be serious about this.” I was about thirteen.
Two years later I started gigging around town with my friends from school, and I was encouraging them to play jazz. And then my dad told me about a cool program called dual enrollment. Miami Dade Community College had a great jazz program for college-age students, but if you were a talented high school kid, you could go to the program and they’d give you college credit to play drums or whatever other instrument. I ended up working with a great jazz educator for about a year, a bass player named JB Dyas. He really got me ready for doing gigs. He was like, “Whoa, man, when you’re trading fours you sound like you’re throwing your drums down a flight of stairs.” And I never took that as an insult. I took it as tough love. He just wanted me to learn form and how to interact and improvise.
MD: Have your jazz studies proven helpful in your career?
Omar: Absolutely. It’s a great foundation to become a well-rounded drummer. Your versatility is your greatest gift; that’s how I see it. I love all styles of music. Put me in any style and I’ll do my best to murder it. I just recorded with Arturo Sandoval in L.A., and it was awesome. My edge to playing drums is not completely jazz—it’s fusion, it’s reggae drumming, one-drop. It’s a mix, because Miami lends itself to that.
MD: You have a lot of intensity, but you don’t overplay.
Omar: All those cool licks and chops that you play, there’s a time for that. But when you’re playing the song, keep it simple. I love the drum-hero stuff—I want to be one of those guys too. But what’s the longevity of my career in the music business if I’m just a chops guy? No one’s going to call me. So I keep it simple and tight in the live show. If we’re in the verse, if we’re in the hook, we just lay it down.
MD: Was Miami a fun scene to grow up in?
Omar: Man, what a melting pot. You’ve got people from Haiti, Cuba, Trinidad…. Quickly you learn that Latin drumming is not the same as Brazilian drumming, and music for calypso is not the same as kompa, which is from Haiti. You start grasping at a young age not to fuse these styles, because that’s kind of going against the grain, and you lose gigs that way. You have to understand what region of the Caribbean or the world the style of music is coming from. And reggae is huge—a lot of us here in Miami grow up listening to Bob Marley’s music.
Even Colombian music, which cumbia is…the rhythm is kind of the same between Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, and a few other South American and Central American countries. There’s two really dope patterns for cumbia, and if you don’t know how to play them, they call some other guy. Miami forces you to learn more than five different styles of drumming. You have to grasp the different grooves. Miami pushes you to do that, and the learning curve is fast. You have to have stuff down on your first gig.
MD: Were you hearing hip-hop rhythms as well?
Omar: The whole eastern seaboard was into freestyle in the ’90s. I have a sister who’s six years older than me, and whatever she was listening to, I was listening to. Early Biggie Smalls, early Nas, like Illmatic. The Miami scene for rappers was just growing, and Uncle Luke was the guy cultivating it. Trick Daddy was coming out of that, Piccolo, even Pit. At a very young age Pit was already rapping and getting involved with heavy people in the Miami hip-hop scene.
MD: Part of your degree at UM was in studio production. Was that always an interest?
Omar: Definitely. I want to leave my mark, whether writing or producing a hit song, something that I’ve contributed to the music business. The producer thing is always a growing experience, still growing as we speak. I think drummers make great music directors and are great visionaries for what they want to do in music, as far as production, drumming, and arranging parts: “All right, guys, this is the form, and we’re going to try this and this, and it’s going to sound great.”
We hold it together, and I think that’s why a lot of artists like to have the drummer as their music director. If you’re a good drummer, the artist will definitely lean toward the drummer and say, “Yeah, what he’s saying is right—we need to do this and that.” Then the drummer is like the MD by default. If there’s no MD on your gig, you need to take control and seize that opportunity. And it’s not about making more money or whatever, it’s just that it’s a job title that drummers should have. You can put that in the magazine.
MD: How did you get into that role with Pitbull, and what does it entail?
Omar: Pit just saw a characteristic in me. I have a very strong demeanor, and it’s something that I’ve worked on to calm a little, because I don’t need to be so aggressive. But he just saw me as kind of a leader.
The MD thing has a few aspects. Number one, I’m not the guy that gets in there and arranges music and tells everyone what to do. My role has to do with getting in a room with a bunch of talented guys that I put together, learning the parts to the tunes, and coming up with ideas together. I grew up playing with these guys, and I trust them the same way that Pit trusts me with his show and with the sound of his music.
I’m really more the point person, like, “Hey, X, Y, and Z needs to get done.” We record it and send it over to Pit, and he approves it or he’ll put in his two cents: “Go back to the drawing board. Do this over. Let’s try this.” Then I get in there, and thankfully I have a DJ who is very talented. We program together, do the edits, and figure out what’s going to happen, then send it over to Pit via email.
MD: Are you mostly interpreting tracks that have already been on albums?
Omar: We test everything out on radio first to see if it works, if people like it. Pit’s more popular now than he’s ever been, and we’re proud of that, but at the same time we’re still gaining new fans, so we have to be careful not to scare them away. [In concert] we want to play the songs that they know, and maybe, if we’re going to premiere a new song, we won’t play the entire song; we’ll only do a verse and a chorus and out. A lot of what we do is medley based. Pit’s got two number ones, and for those two we’ll play the entire song, because people know them from top to bottom. Other songs that weren’t big hits, we don’t play completely through. We just try to keep it simple so that no one gets impatient.
MD: What’s your approach to translating Pitbull’s studio tracks to the live setting?
Omar: We don’t try to play exactly like the album. Let’s say the drum pattern is one of these house patterns that has open hi-hat on the “&” of every beat. I’m not doing any of that. I just open the hi-hat and play a rock beat over the thing, with the bass drum still four on the floor, like a house track. I just rock it out.
The majority of our live show is like a rock concert. You’re hearing Pit’s backing tracks from the albums, but the way that we’re mixed out front, we’re like a rock band out there. It’s like you just watched Guns n’ Roses for an hour and a half. I love it, and Pit loves it because the energy is so much bigger. I’m not saying every song has that type of feel, but the ones that call for that energy, we definitely rock it out, and it sounds awesome.
Tools of the Trade
Tavarez plays a DW Collector’s series kit in black sparkle finish, including a 7.5×13 Edge main snare; a 7×14 maple side snare; a 7×10 maple auxiliary snare; 7×8, 7×10, and 7×12 toms; 14×14 and 16×16 floor toms (with the 14″ to the right of the 16″); and two 18×22 bass drums. His Sabian cymbals include 14″ Groove Hats, a 6″ and two 8″ AAX splashes, a 12″ HH splash, a 14″ HH crash, 17″ and 18″ AAX X-plosion crashes, an 18″ O-Zone crash, a 19″ HHX Aero crash, a 22″ Raw Bell Dry ride, 10″ and 12″ HH Signature Max Stacks, an 18″ AA Brilliant Chad Smith Holy China, 10″ and 12″ Choppers, and an inverted 6″ AA splash. He uses Remo heads, including Black Suede snare batters and Clear Ambassador snare-sides, Black Suede tom batters and bottoms, and clear Powerstroke 3 bass drum batters with Falam Slam pads and 8″ KickPorts in the front heads. His stick model is Vic Firth’s X5A, and he uses Gibraltar hardware and DW 9000 series hi-hat and bass drum pedals. He also plays Gon Bops percussion and uses a ButtKicker Concert low-frequency audio transducer, a Roland SPD-SX multipad, and ddrum snare and bass drum triggers.