The revered Latin-jazz drummer, who turned concepts like left-foot clave into drumming staples, is back with an expansive new audio-visual package.

Horacio “El Negro” Hernández is one of the busiest, most accomplished, and most popular drummers in the world, renowned for his mastery and popularization of the left-foot clave and his overwhelmingly musical Afro-Cuban drumming in general. A typical El Negro performance finds him smiling and tranquil, barely breaking a sweat as he blazes through impossibly difficult rhythms abetted by stupefying improvisations. El Negro’s drumming flows like water.

Music is in El Negro’s blood. “When I was a kid, my dad had the only jazz radio show in Cuba, Radio Granma CMDF,” he recalls. “It was a classical music radio station that had an hour of jazz, a show called Jazz: Its History and Its Interpreters. My father knew everything about any jazz musician. He played piano and trumpet. The show still exists.”

In the 1980s, prior to his international fame, El Negro was the Steve Gadd of the Cuban recording world. Based at legendary EGREM studios in Havana, where he slept on a mattress in the control room between sessions, El Negro cut hundreds of recordings with traditional and popular Cuban artists. “My biggest dream as a drummer when I was fourteen or fifteen was to be the stick god of Cuba,” he says. “I wanted to do any session, every session.”

After leaving Cuba in 1990—he defected while on tour in Italy—El Negro came to the U.S., recording with John Patitucci, Eddie Palmieri, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Paquito D’Rivera, Victor Mendoza, David Sánchez, Tito Puente, and many other Latin, fusion, and jazz giants. In 1997 he joined the lineup of Santana, with whom he won a Grammy for his work on the commercial comeback LP Supernatural, and became a busy clinician. In the past decade, El Negro’s recording output has included recordings by his own band, Italuba, and a diverse list of artists including Robby Ameen, Bebo Valdés, Irvin Mayfield, Jack Bruce, Concha Buika, Fahir Atakoğlu, La Sonora Ponceña, Diego el Cigala, Salazh Trio, Osamu, and Italian superstar Zucchero.

While less visible to U.S audiences of late—more on that below— Hernández will surely be back in drumming headlines this year, due to the release of his CD/DVD Italuba Big Band Live. Recorded with his expanded Italuba lineup, the package is a tour de force of Afro-Cuban rhythms and big band excitement.

Performing music originally recorded on the first two Italuba albums (a third is reportedly already in the can) Italuba Big Band Live features ten compositions that run the gamut from rumba clave, mambo, and cascara to odd meters and insanely complex large ensemble figures. Through it all, El Negro smiles and emits serenity like some mountaintop buddha. While the big band’s figures are maddeningly challenging, El Negro’s drumming is of the pocket variety, making the music flow, pulse, and pound, but never overshadowing his percussionists or soloists.

MD: What have you been doing since we last spoke?

El Negro: I’m still giving clinics, doing drum festivals, recording, and playing with Italuba. I live in between Miami and Cuba and sometimes New York, but Europe is where I work a lot. That’s not just for me; jazz in general is supported by Europeans a lot more than by Americans. What I really love to do more than anything is practice.

MD: What do you consider your career highlights?

El Negro: There have been many through the years. I went on the road for the first time when I was eighteen, and since then it’s been nonstop.

One day, at the very end of the Zucchero tour, I was not able to run correctly. After three months I was unable to move the entire right side of my body. A neurosurgeon performed surgery on my spine, a seven-hour surgery. Two of my vertebrae had been totally destroyed. When I was a child I fell off a horse, and that did it. Then ten years of playing drums in the EGREM studio and carrying drums…. A month after the surgery I was playing again.

MD: Did you learn anything from that experience that you want to pass along to other musicians?

El Negro: I think the biggest lesson was that in life there is always some kind of pain. I was taking every single gig I could. Every day. Every night. Carrying drums, lifting weights, going in the studio, like a cyclone. I am not that young anymore.

MD: Italuba Big Band Live is very well recorded. You noted in another interview that you tried to record the band in New York, but the musicians couldn’t cut the charts.

El Negro: Yes, that was Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. One of the many gigs I did was with Chico O’Farrill, Arturo’s father. This DVD started in Rome, Italy. They gave us the auditorium in Rome to make this project with Italuba. So we started working with an Italian orchestra, and it was going great. But the economic crisis hit Europe in 2008. They fired the orchestra. So I took the record to New York. I gave Arturo O’Farrill a CD with all the basic tracks: bass, drums, percussion, piano, and all the charts. So six months later we went in to record and ultimately had to throw it all out. We lost thousands of dollars.

MD: Was the problem cultural or technical?

El Negro: It was more technical than cultural. Arturo never gave the music to anybody. So they were unprepared to read it. But we did four rehearsals before we went into the studio.

MD: It’s rhythmically challenging music. Most of it is in 4/4, but the counterpoint rhythms sound daunting.

El Negro: The drum parts are probably the easiest part of the whole thing. I wanted to play rhythms that would be perfectly understood by American drummers, like an American way of playing the drums married to the Afro- Cuban rhythm section. I played [straight] drums, and the orchestra played the Afro-Cuban figures. I’m playing as an Afro-Cuban drummer but with the optic of making the 2 and 4 understood by all musicians.

MD: You wanted a product that would sell.

El Negro: No, we’ll never sell anything ever again! [laughs] I simply wanted American drummers to understand the rhythms on the drums with the Afro-Cuban rhythms played by the orchestra. The way drummers know me is because I play things that can be different in every bar. On my first DVD with John Patitucci, on any of those tracks, if you take a bar and loop it, you have a groove. Take the second bar and loop it: that’s another groove. We’re just improvising and talking. But I wanted a steady drumbeat on the Italuba Big Band recording.

MD: Besides the rhythmic concept, what was the goal with the release?

El Negro: To bring out the experiences I had playing with other big bands, like Chico O’Farrill and Bebo Valdés’ big bands and Paquito D’Rivera’s United Nations Orchestra. These kids in the big band, they put their heart, soul, and talent into this.

MD: How did you get funding for this?

El Negro: You see, Cuba still mesmerizes me. We have no money for food, but we have money for music. The state funded the whole thing. They even found a way to bring my drums from the States to Cuba.

MD: You’re a rock star in Cuba, right?

El Negro: Many people don’t even know me in Cuba; there is no publicity there. And usually when you leave Cuba you are silenced. No one says your name. You are considered a traitor.

MD: What do you practice? What’s challenging for you now?

El Negro: Whatever I can’t play. I don’t have a practice routine. My practice routine is to sit and play. If something doesn’t go right, I stay there until it does. That leads me to something else that I cannot play.

It all comes from listening. There aren’t drummers in the music I heard growing up, not like there are in American music. It’s not hard to imitate those drummers. Even if it’s technically amazing, you know what it is. It’s very clear. But in a Cuban percussion ensemble you don’t know who plays what. The low bongo sound can be the high conga. You just hear this massive thing.

MD: So when developing new things, you base it off the percussion ensemble?

El Negro: I try to capture the spirit of that conversation. They’re not playing a random thing; they’re talking to each other. They’re answering and responding, bringing the tradition into contemporary music, using phrases they learned before.

MD: How did you develop the left-foot clave? Were you the first to do it?

El Negro: I was not the first; I was the one to popularize it. I’d seen guys in Cuba doing it. They would do it as a steady rhythm, but stop when they began improvising. I developed how to improvise with it. It was a study of coordination that all came from Jim Chapin’s book, the very first coordination book we all learned. I’d play the exercise from the book, then work in the clave.

MD: The clave has two parts, made of two and three notes. Are they interchangeable?

El Negro: There’s the son clave and there’s the rumba clave, which is the more modern and syncopated clave. We play the rumba clave on the [new release]. The clave is not two rhythms—it’s one rhythm. It’s broken up into two [halves] for people to be able to write it clearly, to be able to make people understand when the clave changes direction without having to add an odd-time bar. If you write it in two bars, the music that happens above the clave can be in two places. The accent of this music can be in two places, on the two of the clave or the three of the clave. So if you write the clave in one bar, if you want to change the accent, then you have to add a 2/4 bar. But if you write it in two you don’t have to add extra bars. You put the accent where you want it and that’s it.

In this music the clave is always in mind. The pulse of the music and the clave. They’re the two poles of our rhythmic world.

MD: When was it that you started doing the left-foot clave?

El Negro: Around 1980. In Italy with Italuba I had a practice room to myself. What I play now came from that practice.

MD: What do you tell drummers who want to develop left-foot clave?

El Negro: First, develop coordination with the hands. You can’t jump in from nowhere. But more than anything else, it’s about hearing. It’s coordination and the ability to hear all those things happening at once.

MD: What do you cover in your clinics these days?

El Negro: [Plays two against three on table using clave] Don’t attempt clave in the feet if you can’t do this with your hands. This is not about playing a lot of stuff . It’s simple, just two things happening at once. It’s not complicated. It’s just patience. Sometimes in lessons, students do the first lesson, come back, and they want to play left-foot clave. Please, listen to me! You have to be patient. My book, Conversations in Clave, discusses this.

MD: Many drummers at your level don’t practice; they just play the gig. Why do you still love to practice?

El Negro: Because for me it’s endless. I’m never going to get there. There’s always something that I can’t get to. I’m never going to be able to touch the light at the end of the tunnel. Because you get inside and the light moves away. You don’t even know where you’re going.

MD: If we were to hear you practicing, would it sound complicated to us?

El Negro: Perhaps not. For me the most important word is precision.

MD: How do you practice that?

El Negro: [Hits table] It’s right there, right there. Play with the intensity you want: soft or loud, medium, it doesn’t matter what sound. Precision is crucial. So many drummers just want chops, something fast. The most important words are precision and dynamics.

MD: How do you practice dynamics?

El Negro: Just trying to find different colors of the same thing. The same scene. [Taps different dynamic levels on table] You can do that everywhere.

MD: What do you find challenging now?

El Negro: Speed is a challenge. For that I practice in front of the TV.

MD: Do you practice things you wouldn’t necessarily play on a gig?

El Negro: Of course. You don’t use everything you practice. When you practice rolls, you might practice a seven-stroke roll, but you will probably never use that on a gig.

MD: How does being a musician in Cuba differ from being one in the U.S.?

El Negro: It’s a different mentality. For us, music is going to save your life. In the U.S., music is what’s going to screw up your life. Tell a parent in the U.S. that their kid wants to be a musician. What will they say? In Cuba, you want your kids to be musicians, because that is what will save their life.

No matter what you do, you’ve got to be the best you can be. In Cuba if you don’t have a diploma, you cannot be a musician. To make it as a self-taught musician you have to be extremely great. Cuba is a system where everything is state approved. To be a musician you have to pass an exam from the state.

MD: Is the level of the average Cuban musician higher or lower than it used to be?

El Negro: It gets higher every day. They are looking after us. You can get all the music on the internet in Cuba, but it’s extremely expensive, $20 for two hours. That’s the monthly salary for many Cubans. But people share the internet to share the music.

MD: Can you tour a big band like this?

El Negro: It’s almost impossible. What happens these days is you tour your core band, then add players in different cities to make up a big band. Like WDR in Germany or the BBC band in London.

MD: Will you have a release party for the DVD in the States?

El Negro: I’d love to but it’s hard. These days people seek publicity above all else, more than seeking to elevate the audience. This big band has never played in New York. Someone would have to make it happen. I truly don’t care. I’m very happy to work internationally. I lived in New York for fifteen years, but now I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make it. You can’t pay your bills playing at Smalls Jazz Club. Forget it.

MD: How do you want people to listen to this new release; what do you want them to get out of it?

El Negro: To capture and listen to the beauty of Cuban music. There’s such a long history of Cuban big bands: Benny Moré, Tito Puente, Chico O’Farrill…. This music is what we’ve learned from all of them. I would love for drummers to understand this connection. It’s the same connection that Dizzy Gillespie had with Chano Pozo, the same connection he found between jazz and Cuban music. Dizzy knew it could be one thing. It’s all the same—2 and 4 is the same for everybody.

El Negro’s Setup

Drums: Pearl Reference Pure
A. 4×10 snare
B. 5×14 snare
C. 8×10 tom
D. 9×13 tom
E. 14×14 floor tom
F. 16×16 floor tom
G. 18×22 bass drum

Heads: Evans, including EC Reverse Dot snare batter, G2 tom batters and G1 resonants, EMAD 2 Clear bass drum batter

Cymbals: Istanbul Mehmet Horacio “El Negro” Hernández signature series
1. 14″ China
2. 13″ hi-hats
3. 8″ splash with rivets
4. 19″ crash
5. 22″ light ride
6. 12″ hi-hats
7. 18″ crash
8. 16″ China

Sticks: Promark TX424W Horacio “El Negro” Hernández signature hickory wood-tip sticks, TB4 Telescoping wire brushes