Dafnis Prieto: Into The Fire

Dafnis Prieto: Into The Fire

Show of hands: How many DRUM! readers consider a frying pan to be an essential part of their kit? We know of one — and what's intriguing is that, aside from this handy utensil, Dafnis Prieto insists on playing a bare-bones setup.

"I try to use a simple drum set that you can get a lot of sounds out of," the Cuban-born, MacArthur Fellowship Award winner says. "I like the idea of getting different sounds from one single drum because I believe you carry your sound within yourself. It's not the drums. It's the drummer."

Judging from Prieto's performances and recordings since his relocation to the United States in 1999, he must host a universe of sounds in his body, mind, and heart. This helps to explain the impression he creates on his latest album, Triangles And Circles: that he has recruited a phalanx of percussionists to lay down intricate patterns over his challenging, multiple-meter compositions.

But it's actually just Prieto, playing his kick, snare, three toms, three cymbals, occasionally a woodblock and cowbell — and, of course, the frying pan, which harks back to his upbringing in Cuba, where carnival participants often strap two of them from their waist to play as they walk.

His references are jazz, Afro-Cuban, and assorted Latin influences he picked up during his long stay in New York. He was spotted very soon after arrival: as early as 2002, The New York Times singled him out as being part of "a small tradition of Cuban drummers who hit New York like asteroids." In short order, he was picking up commissions and grants, conducting masterclasses, and working with Eddie Palmieri, Steve Coleman, Henry Threadgill, Giovanni Hidalgo, and other luminaries while also leading his own bands.

Recently, though, he moved to more sedate quarters in Florida. "Remember," he points out, "I'm from a small town in Santa Clara." That's Santa Clara, Cuba, of course. Born in 1974, he grew up in a loving but totally nonmusical family. That's not to say there wasn't a lot to listen to and pique his childhood curiosity. "I remember my mom making coffee," he says. "When she stirred the spoon to put in the sugar, I was very interested in the sound and the rhythmic patterns she created. In my neighborhood, there were lots of rumberos — people that played rumbas," he adds. "Everyone lived with their windows open, so I would hear them rehearsing. I was surrounded by music."

Prieto's first interest was classical and Spanish guitar. When he joined an ensemble at the Santa Clara School Of Fine Arts that already was overstaffed with guitarists, he switched to bongos. Shortly after that, the kid whose job it was to play clave didn't show up, so Prieto subbed by clicking the pattern with his mouth while playing the bongo part as well.

That did it: a percussionist was born. For the next several years, Prieto received instruction on snare, xylophone, timpani, and other orchestral instruments. Just before he turned 15, he was accepted into the National School Of Music in Havana, where his classical studies continued for another four years.

More significantly, at age 11, he discovered a trap set in a rehearsal room at his school. Now the transformation was complete: Without any formal lessons, Prieto woodshedded on the kit. Foreshadowing of his unique style took shape as he drew from performance practice on every percussion instrument.

"Now," he admits, "when I listen to myself, I think, 'Wow, I'm covering a lot of things that the conga or the timbales play!' So for most of the music I write, you can integrate percussion into it, but it's not conceived primarily to have the percussionists because I cover that in my own playing on the drums."

Quick Licks

Dafnis Prieto isn’t stifled by the strict conventions of traditional Latin rhythms, but instead uses the clave as a guide, playing with as much freedom as he sees fit. This extends to the clave-tinged second line feel on “Blah Blah Blah.” Here, Prieto fills up the entire sound spectrum by using syncopated kick, buzz strokes, ghosted notes, rimshots, open hi-hat punctuations, and a seven-stroke roll between hi-hat and snare.

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