Daniel de los Reyes has been an A-list Latin percussionist for most of his life. He’s toured, recorded, and made videos with people like Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, and Gloria Estefan, as well as rockers such as Jimmy Buffet, John Mayer, and Lindsey Buckingham. He’s always on the lookout for situations that will stretch his musical horizons, so playing percussion with Zac Brown’s country/bluegrass/jam band seemed like the next logical step in his varied career. To him, there’s nothing odd about adding Latin and African percussion accents to country music.
“I met Zac at a music camp in Northern California,” de los Reyes says, explaining the events that led to his current position. “About a year ago, I was walking down the road with a djembe on my back and I ran into him. We introduced ourselves and he invited me on stage to sit in on a few tunes.” After the set, de los Reyes and Brown drank some Jack Daniels and played together until three in the morning. Brown was interested in Latin percussion. De los Reyes taught him a few licks and they jammed until they were too tired to play.
The next year, Brown asked de los Reyes to play a full set with the band. The fans loved it. The rapport between Brown and de los Reyes was obvious to everyone. “I sat in for that gig and never left,” the percussionist says with a chuckle. “There was nothing formal. No paperwork. He put me on his tour bus and I got to see what an incredible guy he was as an artist and a person. The first thing he said to me when he showed me his bus was, ’Rummage. Anything that’s mine is yours.’ I like to rummage and he was serious about sharing. I’ve never seen anything like it. The techies, roadies, cooks, and musicians all bring their families on the road and I became part of the family. I’ve never seen such a close-knit group, and that’s what I’m about. I’m the most happy when I’m part of a team.”
This may be his first position with a country band, but de los Reyes doesn’t feel out of place. “I don’t label his sound, it’s just great music. The question I ask is the same I ask in any situation. ’What kind of condiments do you add to the recipe?’” Brown and his band play everything from slide guitar county ballads, to up-tempo two steps, old time calypso, reggae, and R&B songs. Making percussion a prominent part of the arrangements adds another dimension to their sound. “Zac has a song called ’Caged’ that has a 7/8 section in it, but that’s Zac. There are no boundaries. Congas, cajon, Brazilian percussion, timbales – everything gets mashed in.”
Although de los Reyes was still in the process of getting his feet under him, Brown invited him to participate in the sessions for Uncaged, the new album out in July. The material that Brown brought into the studio included road-tested tunes and the bare bones of newer songs. Brown had a good idea of how he wanted them to sound, but included everyone in the creative process. “I was in a tracking room, so I could add overdubs. In two days I added percussion to 12 songs.”
De los Reyes said that coordinating rhythms and patterns with Brown’s long-time trap drummer, Chris Fryer, was another perk to his new job. Fryer is a serious student of drum history and was familiar with the de los Reyes family and their contributions to the evolution of Latin music. Before the recording session, they spent a week together at Fryer’s home working out their parts for the new album. It was similar to what they’d been doing on the road – trying out patterns together backstage by tapping them out on drum cases before they play a show. “It’s a mix of plantains and grits,” de los Reyes says. “Chris surprised the hell out of me. He’s like a cross between Carlos Vega and Jeff Porcaro. He has incredible technique and knowledge and loves to pass on what he’s learned. He can do complex, outside fills and still land on the 1. I’m 20 years older than most of the guys in the band, but they all have a maturity as musicians and people that I didn’t have when I was that age.”
While his gig with the Zac Brown Band takes up a lot of his time, de los Reyes says he has trouble staying still. Luckily, Brown maintains a low-key touring schedule, usually doing three shows a weekend, then taking four days off to recuperate. This leaves de los Reyes plenty of time for his outside projects. He’s based in Las Vegas and runs a company that helps the producers of stage shows coordinate the drumming and percussion that’s at the core of many reviews.
One of his first assignments was putting together a group of drummers for the debut party of Cirque du Soleil’s Ka, a massive gala that ran for 12 hours, from midnight to noon. He’s also involved with teaching and fundraising for worthy causes like Opportunity Village, a disabled kids program. He helps by exposing children to drumming and percussion as a way to get them to interact with each other on a deeper level. “I did a drum circle that took kids from Opportunity Village and kids from a local high school and helped them put on a show. It was successful as a fundraiser and in getting the children to cooperate with each other. The people who run the program told me they’d never seen some of the kids come out of their shell like that before. It was really rewarding.”