Timbalero Ralph Irizarry redefined the way percussion was used in Latin jazz with his bands Timbalaye and Son Café, though he’s too modest to crow about it. “I don’t know if ’redefined’ is the right term,” Irizarry says, speaking via phone from his Brooklyn home. “What I tried to do in Son Café and Timbalaye is present jazz with Latin rhythms, played on Latin percussion instruments. When I hear Latin jazz bands using traps, I think the traps sound American. So I added things to the timbale set up – like an 18" Rototom that I use like a kick, but I play it with my hands. When you hear the drums from the dance floor, you may think it’s a trap set, but it’s me on timbales, Rototoms, or a snare. It’s a hybrid setup that stays true to the timbales but adds instruments that can fill out the percussion on a tune.
“My purpose with Timbalaye was to take the kind of rhythms that Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo did with Cal Tjader way back when, and bring it into the 21st century. With Son Café, I did something else. I eliminated the bongos and played the bongo bell and timbale bell at the same time. There’s a bongo player implied when you hear that bell. I did the double-bell thing on the Best Kept Secret recording, which was innovative for the U.S., if not anywhere else.”
Irizarry’s first professional gig was filling the timbale chair for Ray Baretto’s band in 1977. His first recording session was the seminal Rican/Struction album for Fania, but mainstream listeners may be more familiar with him for his work with Seis del Solar, the group Ruben Blades put together after leaving Willie Colon’s band. Seis del Solar added elements of rock, reggae, doo-wop, salsa, and other Caribbean rhythms to Blades’ compositions in an effort to break free of the constraints of what a salsa band should be.
“Seis del Solar was the most innovative project I’ve ever been involved with,” Irizarry recalls. “When the band was formed in 1983, we had a series of meetings before we played one note of music. We discussed what we wanted to wear, what we wanted to get paid, what we wanted to play, and how we were going to play it. We met at Ruben’s apartment near Columbus Circle in New York.”
This year marks the reunion of the original Seis del Solar lineup, with Robby Ameen on traps, Oscar Hernandez on keys, Richie Marrero on keys, vibraphone, and percussion, Eddy Montalvo on trombone, tumbadora, and percussion, bonguero Louis Rivera, Mike Vinas on acoustic and electric guitar and banjo, as well as Blades on guitar and Irizarry on timbales. “For the reunion, we all got together for lunch with Ruben in New York. Today, we’re all successful sidemen, musicians, and bandleaders in our own right. We had to make sure we were all into doing this tour. But even before that I went to Panama to talk to Ruben about doing a reunion. I was instigating this thing for a while. I had the idea we needed to do this and it paid off.
“We locked down Mountain Studios in Manhattan a few weeks ago and started rehearsing. We’re looking to update the tunes and include some fresh ideas into the standards we played 25 years ago. Ruben likes to work in-house, so Richie Marrero, Oscar Hernandez, and Mike Vinas are doing the arrangements. We’re all bringing in 15 years of extra experience this time, so I think people are in for a real treat.
“It was a joy to rehearse and play with these guys again,” Irizarry continues. “Looking at it from a rhythm standpoint, Robby and me have to lock in and swing without interfering or stepping on each other. It’s fun because we’re inventing new ways timbales and traps can coexist. What comes out of that are different drum patterns for these two entities. When Robby met drummer Horacio ’El Negro’ Hernadez a few years ago, Hernadez told him people in Cuba listened to what we did on the early Ruben Blades records and our sound influenced what they were doing in Cuba. It’s very flattering, although I don’t know if it’s true.”
Irizarry says the set list will not contain any post—Seis del Solar material. “The tunes are from the Colon years, some Fania All Stars stuff, and things from the Seis del Solar albums – about 25 songs. It was hard to pick them, so Ruben had a survey on his web site. People chose what they wanted to hear and then voted, so we’ll be playing what people around the world want us to play, which is cool. We’re doing mostly stadiums with big stages, so we’ll have six more rehearsals in the U.S. before we go to Puerto Rico for the production rehearsals with the big video screens, special effects, lighting, and all the surprises that we’ll be giving people.”The Blades tour will last from August to December 2009 and cover North, South, and Central America, in addition to the Caribbean. If it goes well, European dates will follow in early 2010.
Street Smart. Although Irizarry grew up in Spanish Harlem, he didn’t fall under the spell of Latin music until his family moved to the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. “I lived near Powell Street Park. When I was about eight years old, I’d wander over to the park, lured by the sound of the drumming. Guys playing congas and timbales would make my blood boil. When I heard them, I used to wonder why I felt mesmerized by what they were doing. Later on, I realized they were all heroin addicts, but they still got to me. “At home, there were aluminum covers over the radiators in our house. My brothers and sister and I would play on them with our hands. My dad had a store and he was always extending credit to people, including this addict named Lawrence, who wasn’t a bad guy. He finally gave my father a set of timbales for the 25 dollars he owed him. We took the dowels out of the old wooden hangers in the closet and beat on the drums until we broke the heads, which were made of goatskin. It wasn’t until seven years later, after we’d moved to Queens, that I met a guy who played congas. He asked me if I’d like to jam and I bought a set of plastic heads for the timbales and it was love at first shot. The sound captivated me and here I am, 40 years later, still playing every day.
“I worked at Kennedy Airport then and had money to buy playboy shoes and alpaca sweaters to look sharp. I went out and got a set of Rogers timbales with bells and sticks and dedicated myself to them. I played with records in my parent’s basement. I’d buy several records a week and stay in the basement until I could play every solo. Then I’d start messing with them, adding and subtracting to make them my own. I’d run home after school at 3:00 and only stopped playing when I saw my father’s car come into the driveway from the basement window.”
As soon as he could grow sideburns and a moustache, Irizarry began going to clubs to hear Tito Puente, Ray Baretto, and the other greats. “I was present at the filming of Our Latin Thing, the documentary about the Fania All Stars,” he says. “Part of my training was going out and getting close enough to the stage to see what the timbalero was doing. I wasn’t able to take any lessons, but I was able to observe the styles of New York, Cuba, and Puerto Rico and blend them to create a voice of my own.”
Irizarry was soon good enough to land a gig with Jorge Maldonado’s band. “My mother told him he had to pick me up and bring me home after the rehearsals and gigs if he wanted me in the band – and he did,” Irizarry laughs. “I was only 16 years old and still in high school. But once I knew I wanted to be a professional musician, school got real boring, real fast.”
In 1970 the family moved back to Puerto Rico and Irizarry sat in with El Gran Combo and Sonora Ponceña and worked with Los Hermanos Rivera, Orquestra La Mundo, and La Terrífica, but the gigs didn’t last. “People said Nuyoricans had an attitude. They thought they could play better than the locals, which may be true, but getting fired by La Terrífica was a blessing in disguise. Chago Martinez, the sax player, took pity on me and taught me to read percussion charts. Every Saturday I’d take a 45-minute public car ride to his home and sit there with his seven-year-old piano students and get my lessons. I’ve gotten so many jobs since then because I can read charts.”
Irizarry finally left his parents’ home and returned to New York. He worked days at Merrill Lynch and played nights with charanga bands like Typica New York and Charanga America. He was playing in a small club with Orquesta Novedades when Ray Baretto stopped in and asked him if he’d like to play in his band. “He was returning from a side trip, doing some pop and jazz sides. Naturally, I was interested. It took three months for him to call me. I was sweeping my apartment when he called and I remember I dropped the phone when he told me who was calling.” Within a few weeks Irizarry was at the Fania studios working on Baretto’s Rican/Struction album.
“My first gig with Ray was at Madison Square Garden in 1977, a comeback show with 23,000 fans,” he says. “I could hardly keep the sticks in my hand. I was maybe 16 when I first saw him in a club and he signed an album for me, ’From Ray Baretto to a music lover,’ and there I was in the Ray Baretto band. Talk about dreams coming true. From a music fan to standing at the right side of the bandleader on the stage at Madison Square Garden.”
Irizarry played with Baretto until Blades tapped him for Seis del Solar in 1983. “Everything in that band was about change. The band meetings were democratic and everybody was included in every decision. I was coming from a big orchestra with four horns backing me up, to a small mellow six-piece with vibes and acoustic guitar. We had to be tight and well-rehearsed because any mistake you made was noticeable. We were out there in the raw. We had to make each performance as close to flawless as possible and stay loose and swinging as well.”
When he wasn’t on the road with Blades, Irizarry toured and played sessions with Bebo Valdés, Harry Belafonte, David Byrne, Celia Cruz, Paquito D’Rivera, Juan Luis Guerra, and Paul Simon, to name just a few. “I played on Portraits Of Cuba, a Grammy-winning album with Paquito D’Rivera, but one of the most important gigs of my life was with Bebo Valdés at Carnegie Hall, a show celebrating his 50th anniversary in the music business. As part of the show, he put together a quartet to do two tunes: Bebo on piano, Cachao Lopéz, who was 83 at the time, on bass, Candido, who was 80-something, on congas, and I was the timbalero. Cachao invented the mambo, Candido was the first guy to play three congas at the same time, and Bebo was one of the great Cuban composers, so there I was with the entire history of Cuban music on one stage. I knew that quartet was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It was a situation that was mind boggling.”
Irizarry also tried his hand at acting with a speaking role in The Mambo Kings, the film based on the Pulitzer Prize—winning book by Oscar Hijuelos. “That was another wonder,” Irizarry says. “I got to hang out with Celia Cruz and Tito Puente for 11 weeks. We had to be up at 6:00 every morning and Celia was always there with a big smile ready to go. Everyone else was grumbling about the early hour, but she was always happy. Antonio Banderas said I was a natural, and I’d like to do more acting, but it would take too much time out of my music. And nothing satisfies me more than playing timbales.”
When the members of Seis del Solar parted ways, Irizarry figured it was time to start his own outfit. He put together Timbalaye in 1996. Playing Latin jazz without a drum kit freed up his timbale playing; he incorporated influences from Latin America, Africa, Cuba, and Puerto Rico in the arrangements.
“Timbalaye made two CDs without one cover tune,” Irizarry says. “I don’t write myself, but I’m always looking to create a standard. I know what I want and what kind of arrangements fit my style of playing and the band always has input. There’s not an idea from a bandmember than I’m not interested in. I always like to hear what someone wants to contribute to the betterment of the music.”
After Timbalaye, Irizarry put together his current band, Son Café, and launched his own label, BKS (Best Kept Secret). “I never wanted to be a label, or distributor, or a radio-and-print media person, but we have to do it. I have things I want to record and have to wear many hats out of necessity. We see where the industry is going today and don’t know how long CDs will be around, so I’m looking to do more visual projects like the Son Café DVD En Grande y en Vivo.
“There’s been talk for the last couple of years that salsa is dying,” Irizarry concludes. “Each new generation says disco, or boogaloo, bachata, merengue, or reggaeton, will replace salsa, but the music has stood the test of time. Today the salsa effect is most evident on the dance floor. In Japan, Europe, Asia – everyone is learning how to salsa dance. If anything will make the music more mainstream it’s the dancers, although a lot of people are going to clubs and dancing to DJs, which is disconcerting. When you went dancing in the ’70s to Ray Baretto, or Tito Puente, or Larry Harlow, the dancers would stop and listen and applaud when someone took a solo. The ones who invented this music created parts that link up together to make a wall of sound with the bongos, congas, and timbales all fitting together with the melody of the piano and pulse of the bass. Puente said it best: ’People around the world love our Latin rhythms; it’s hard not to move when you’re hearing Latin music.’”