Story by Robin Tolleson
Photos by Alex Solca
He blends the best of Cuba’s intricate and colorful percussive tradition with a North American sense of swing and a firm command of 2 and 4—like Walfredo Reyes Sr., David Garibaldi, and Dennis Chambers all rolled into one, with the spacious feel of Steve Gadd. And then there’s his ever-present smile, which tells everyone in the house that there’s nothing in the world he’d rather be doing than carving up that tasty beat.
After writing the well-regarded book The New Method for Afro-Cuban Drumming for Hudson Music in 2004, Branly, who holds a doctorate in music, began teaching at Shepherd University in Glendale, California. For the past eight years he’s taught drums and Afro-Cuban group performances at the university’s Cornel School of Contemporary Music. Jimmy is currently working on his debut solo album, and he regularly engineers projects for other artists out of his home recording studio, where he’s produced, mixed, and/or mastered more than eighty albums encompassing a wide variety of styles. MD recently spent some time with the busy drummer to get to the heart of his cross-cultural musical identity.
MD: How did you develop your interest in drums?
Jimmy: In Cuba you have to have talent recognized by someone in order to do what you want. They run a test and decide if you’re good for what you want to do. They might say, “Yeah, you want to play drums…let me see…sit on the piano. You’ve got a better technique for the piano. Do piano for four years and then we’ll see.”
In the beginning I started doing sports, like water polo, and then I moved to art and painting. I started playing drums around eleven or twelve, though I was still doing sports and art. I had a friend who played guitar, and he made me start playing drums. I took it seriously and went to school. I did five years at two different music schools, which in Cuba meant the Russian program. Everything was classical. I never sat on the drums at school. I had to create my own drums, using drumheads made from X-rays or the plastic they used to make film for cartoons back in the day, using shoe glue…. It was very difficult back then to get instruments. Now it’s much better.
MD: Were you discouraged from playing certain kinds of music?
Jimmy: Well, they always had something against Americans, you know. But actually it’s not about that. Mainly it’s because no one was supporting Cuba other than the Russians, and the only thing the Russians were sending was snare drums and books to learn classical music. So it was really difficult to find a drumset. You’d have to build it yourself or find people that had parts [from] before the revolution.
We were independent. Musicians had to make it on their own. No drum stores, and there wasn’t YouTube or videos to learn things from, so you had to learn on your own from tapes. I had friends who traveled a lot, and they’d bring tapes of Chick Corea or Elvin Jones or Coltrane or Miles Davis, copies of tapes that a lot of people shared. So you listen to a really bad copy of music, you share that information with your friends, and that’s how you learn.
You’d go to school to learn what you want, but you didn’t really learn what you wanted to. So I had to learn on my own, in my little room in Cuba, playing to tapes with whatever I found when I was a kid. When I started playing more professionally, I was able to find some instruments, not good but a little better than just made-up stuff.
But it was a great experience. I don’t think I ever said, “I wish I didn’t go through that.” I’m really proud of all the stuff I had to go through. It made me appreciate everything that I have now. I open my bag of sticks and remember when I had to wrap them with electrical tape or whatever I could find just to be able to finish my concerts.
MD: Many great percussionists have come from Cuba.
Jimmy: I don’t know what it is, but there’s a certain ingredient that people grew up with, and almost everyone can play percussion. In Cuba it’s very hard to find bad musicians, you see, because the people who go into music do it because they’re good at it, and they’re kind of born with [the skills]. Even if they don’t learn it in school, they just play on top of boxes and stuff. I guess it’s in the blood.
The most important thing about the whole Cuban thing is the syncopation, which is very different from a lot of places. When we move to the States, we understand that it doesn’t really work with American music, so you have to adapt. People in Cuba play this like drinking water. For them it’s so easy—even the dancers understand all the syncopation.
In Brazil and those countries where the rhythm’s so rich, it’s incredible to see the kids—you know, they’ve got it. Then you go to school and you refine it, of course, you make everything a little more defined. But definitely you need that grease, you need to have that street-learning thing that we can only get in certain places.
MD: Were you able to apply what you learned in your classical training?
Jimmy: I’ll be honest with you, when I started school I already had a certain technique that I liked. I always liked to play traditional with my left hand, but at the school they didn’t let me. You had to play matched. So I learned having a classical technique.
But I definitely feel that the reading was very important, and the hang. So, we don’t care, we go to a class, we have fun, we do our homework stuff, but the hang is amazing. The hang with musicians and other talented kids is where the school is, you know.
MD: Do you think drummers who come from countries that are traditionally rich in percussion think more colorfully on the kit? Some of your hi-hat stuff sounds like a shaker.
Jimmy: In Cuba, percussion becomes part of you. Drumset wasn’t really a Cuban thing. It came later. That’s why it’s sometimes difficult for a Cuban to sound like a drumset player. They have to put a big effort into learning how Americans play drums and how to get that sound. The Cuban drummer [commonly] plays like a percussionist at a drumset. But it’s been evolving. Over the years you see more drummers now sounding like a drummer, because there’s more information coming in. When I left Cuba in 1998, I was already listening to American drummers and was already into it, but because you don’t have direct contact and information, you always lack something.
When you come to this country it’s like you’re going through a filter, and that’s where you purify everything that you do. And if you’re smart enough and you really want to make it—and not just make some money, but have a career—then you definitely have to listen and understand what’s happening around you before thinking that what you do is the best. Some people just think too much of themselves. My theory is to be aware of your surroundings all the time.
Drums is something I learned on my own, but I always wanted to make music with the drums. I wasn’t too interested in making sport out of it. I always wanted the comment from people, “Man, you sound musical” or “I loved your phrasing.” That stuff I like more than, “Man, you play fast,” or “I love what you do with the double pedal.” For me that’s extra.
I don’t practice much these days, because I’m really busy in the studio or teaching or gigging—though that’s practicing too. But you have no idea how many hours I listened to Steve Gadd, Dave Weckl, Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, Dennis Chambers, Vinnie Colaiuta…. You know what you do when you’re a kid—you imitate, until you start making music. I used to listen not only for what Steve Gadd was doing, but why he was doing it, and it was beautiful.
I always loved listening to and playing jazz, but being in Cuba and playing Cuban music all the time, clave and the syncopation, it’s a different thing for us. You have to be able to understand both sides and then put it together in a way that works for the American people. Because when I play with American musicians and I start throwing in my syncopation, some of them get lost, and it’s not their fault. I used to be very careful with that, but now I’m super-careful, because I don’t like to make the music be the loser just because I want to do my things. I have to make sure everyone is comfortable. And that’s something that we are learning, and the music is getting more and more interesting when it comes to that.
MD: What was your plan when you came over from Cuba?
Jimmy: When you come you have that hunger of coming here and having things that you never had, like Coca-Cola, like meat, things you can’t have in Cuba. So from that to the music, you want to have everything. I came here with the desire to let people know about me and to share with musicians from here. I loved jazz, and I could do it in Cuba—there are a lot of great musicians in Cuba—but if you want to do it the right way you have to come here. There’s no other way. So I was young, and I came with all my ideas.
MD: What surprised you about the scene here?
Jimmy: You have to be super-professional here. You have to be able to socialize and to adapt to anything that’s going to come to you, because you never know who you’re going to play with and what kind of music you’re going to play.
When I get a call, I always ask, “What are we doing? What’s the style?” First of all, I need to know what drums and cymbals and sticks to bring—or heads, because I don’t just go to every gig with whatever. I want to bring the right stuff to get the sound that applies to the music I’m doing at the moment, and who I’m playing with.
I learned to play with dynamics from listening to Peter Erskine more than anyone. When I joined Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s band, at the first rehearsal he said, “Man, you’re playing too loud—it’s too strong. I like what you’re doing, but it’s too aggressive.” You learn you’ve got to play at the dynamics of the other instruments. If you play with an acoustic piano and the piano has no mics, you can’t play above it, because then you’re not playing for the music, you’re playing for yourself. And I realized that not only is the control in your hands, but also the instrument helps. The right cymbal and the right sticks help you to play in different ways.
MD: Some players like to specialize in just one thing, like studio or road drumming. You’re showcasing a variety of talents, even engineering.
Jimmy: Well, if you want to make a living—not just a living but a good living—there are two ways. Either you have to be the luckiest guy and be in the right place at the right time to get one gig that’s going to save your life, or you’re going to be smart and say, “I’m going to learn everything I can to be able to conquer as much as I can.”
I have to be able to do whatever they ask me to do, especially in the studio. Producers can be intense. Sometimes you have to come up with a lot of ideas. So you have to be prepared for all those things and be able to play all kinds of music. I listened to a lot of jazz, and the first music I heard was from my father. He used to play me Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin and Rush. Before I ever played any clave or anything, that’s what I had in my head, and I was playing to it. Then I moved to the streets, where you don’t hear that music—you play Cuban music—but you have that in the back of your head.
Ian Paice of Deep Purple was my favorite drummer. My dad played me “The Mule,” from the Made in Japan record, and Ian does a solo. That’s the song that really made me want to play drums. I love the fact that this guy was a rock drummer, but he was playing kind of like Buddy Rich—a jazzy rock style—and the sound for me was killer back then. So now I love to play jazz today, rock tomorrow, Brazilian, studio work…. And I love teaching. It makes me feel good to give the things that I know to young drummers, to help them be better musicians.
MD: The joy in your face when you play is fun to watch.
Jimmy: I love playing drums, but more than that I love to see the people around me liking and enjoying what I do. That’s what I go home with. I like getting out of the gig and knowing that the music felt good. When it’s your moment to erupt, you should just go for it. It’s not always your moment, though. But I just enjoy all of it.
MD: Many of us have seen El Negro playing left-foot clave, but I’ve never seen someone do the left-hand clave like you do it.
Jimmy: Well, it’s easier. [laughs] What Negro does is more complicated. It requires some study and time, and I’m the kind of drummer who believes that if I have to put time into learning independence, then I’m not making much music with it. So I do what my brain lets me do, you see. I don’t put time into doing something that I’m not capable of—unless it’s a style of music that I need to learn. But technique-wise I don’t really go too far.
I’m blessed that I was born with…I guess with a technique, because I never really practice it that much. I can’t explain it, but for me and for most Cubans, you go to Cuba and everyone can play the clave with the left hand or the right and improvise with the other hand. It’s something very common in Cuba, very easy for people. So we all applied that in different ways.
I like doing it sometimes with the cross-stick and then working around the drums with my right hand. But if I have a jam block on the left side next to the hi-hat, that gives me more room around the drums with the right hand, so I could go back and forth from left to right instead of just being on the right side if I’m on the snare with the left.
Ignacio Berroa likes to play it on the right hand and then he moves around the drums with the left. Everyone’s got their own beautiful way of doing it. Also, the way you phrase and the way you tune the drums to make those phrases more musical—or not—is what makes it interesting.
MD: What was the goal with your book, The New Method for Afro-Cuban Drumming?
Jimmy: When I say, “Let’s play Afro-Cuban,” we’re going to play all kinds of stuff. We’re going to go from salsa to son to cha-cha-cha to eleguá to some kind of 6/8 or 3/4—straight 8ths always. Nothing swings in Cuban music. It’s an influence of everything, all kinds of phrasing you can do analyzing 6/8 rhythms blended with 4/4. So it’s like a box full of rhythms called Afro-Cubans, and you grab a groove from there and you use it for a song or for a jam. Could be a rumba, could be a yambú, could be a Columbia, a guaguancó, a son, a cha-cha-cha, a contradanza, a danzón, a bolero…
The way the kick follows the bass is not like in pop music, where the drummer’s playing basically 2 and 4 or some other rhythms that are basically locked with the bass. In Cuban music the drummer works around the bass. Sometimes it’s together with the bass, but it’s like counterpoint. Every instrument is floating around in time, and at the end it’s just one big solid groove.
So we drummers sometimes want to play as much as we can from the percussion ideas that we have. Blend it into the drums and make it sound full. That’s why you see the cowbell in the right hand, keeping another cowbell on the left foot, with a lot of ghost notes that are kind of imitating what the conga plays on the left hand, kind of muffling. What Changuito calls “the secret hand,” which is, you know, you have the under-groove on top of your groove, and that’s what makes the whole thing full.
I always tell my students, something we need to remember is that Cuban music is all about the “&” of 4, the 4, and the 1. If you’ve got those three, you can understand what’s happening. So that’s rules, because some people do the drum fill, and normally we land on 4 rather than on 1—this is the crash. One-two-three-bop. If the other musicians are not aware of that, they’re going to think that’s the 1, so what happens is that the whole thing shifts and is interpreted in a different way.
So I teach students to understand what other people do, rather than just working on their own stuff all the time. A lot of Cuban bass players have put time into learning and understanding what’s happening. It’s a never-ending learning experience, because people add more and more to their playing. And just as they need our support for the music, we need their support so that we can express ourselves.
Cuban music has a lot of heart and a lot of syncopation phrases that could be interpreted different ways, so that’s something I’m careful with, that the people who are listening can just have fun with it. That’s why sometimes I keep my bell on the left foot and play 1 and 3. When I do solos sometimes I keep it so that people can really hear where the 1 is and actually enjoy the solo. If I don’t play that bell and don’t play any time at all, it sounds like you’re throwing a barrel down the stairs. It can sound like a bunch of notes, because the syncopation is crazy. It’s accents all over the place.
I’m telling you, I listen to myself and sometimes I go, Where’s 1? Because you could be doing crazy stuff. But it works better when the music is supporting. I love being able to stretch, what I call slow-motion soloing. You know, you take your time between one note and another, and the space in between is what really counts. If that kind of soloing is supported by good timing and a good groove behind, then people can really understand. If it’s just you by yourself, then you’ve got to do as much as you can to make people understand what you’re doing.
Rebeca Mauleón Descarga en California /// Sandro Albert The Color of Things /// Otmaro Ruiz Sojourn /// Cuarto Espacio Reencuentro /// Jimmy Branly self-titled debut album /// Lia Branly Se Feliz
Elvin Jones various recordings /// Vinnie Colaiuta self-titled solo album /// Deep Purple all (Ian Paice) /// Rush all (Neil Peart) /// Led Zeppelin all (John Bonham) /// The Beatles all (Ringo Starr) /// Pat Metheny various recordings with various drummers /// James Brown various /// Chick Corea various /// Irakere (Cuban jazz) various /// Yoruba Andabo (Cuban rumba) various /// NG la Banda (modern Cuban music) various /// Orquesta Aragón (traditional Cuban music) various /// Kenny Garrett Triology (Brian Blade) /// John Scofield Time on My Hands (Jack DeJohnette) /// anything featuring drummers Ignacio Berroa, Enrique Pla, Changuito, Walfredo Reyes Sr., Guillermo Barreto, Giraldo Piloto, and Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez
Drums: Yamaha Hybrid Maple
A. 6×14 Sensitive snare with wood hoops
B. 8×10 tom
C. 9×12 tom
D. 14×14 floor tom
E. 16×16 floor tom
F. 16×20 bass drum
Heads: Remo Coated Ambassador snare and tom batters and Coated Powerstroke 3 bass drum batter
1. 14″ K Constantinople hi-hats
2. 9″ Oriental Trash Splash
3. 20″ K Constantinople Renaissance ride
4. 22″ K Constantinople Medium Thin Low ride
5. 18″ K Constantinople crash
6. 22″ Oriental China Trash
Hardware: Yamaha single bass drum pedal
Percussion: Meinl, including Medium Dark cowbell attached to foot pedal, 13″ Mini Drummer timbale, Low Pitch Percussion Block, and Hand Hammered cowbell
Sticks: Vic Firth
Accessories: Beato bags