Daniel de los Reyes: Prince Of Percussion

daniel de los reyes

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.”

Creativity Uncaged

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.”

Cirque du Soleil And Kids At Risk

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.”


Family Values

The de los Reyes family has been playing music for three generations and Daniel wanted to be part of the family’s history as long as he can remember. He’s always loved drums and percussion and was playing his father’s practice pads when he was three. His father, Walfredo de los Reyes III, was one of Cuba’s most successful and influential percussionists. He was one of the first drummers to incorporate congas and other percussion into the traditional drum kit.

daniel de los reyes

De los Reyes' Setup

Drums Gon Bops (Sunburst Fade)
1 12.5" x 30" California Series Tumba
2 7"/8.5" California Series Bongos
3 14"/15" Alex Acuña Timbales
4 10" DW Piccolo Snare (Broken Glass finish)
5 18" DW Floor Tom (played as a bass drum)
6 18" Remo Surdo

Cymbals Sabian
A 18" HHX Crash
B 10" AAX Splash
C 18" HHX Evolution O-Zone Crash

Percussion Gon Bops
D Tambourines
E Timbale Bells
F Guiro
G Clave Bells/Tambourine (with DW 9000 pedals)
H DW 5000 Pedal (with inverted beater)
I LP Daniel de los Reyes One-Shot Shakers
J Wind Chimes

K Korg Wavedrum Oriental
L Korg Wavedrum Mini
M Roland SPD-30 Pad
N Roland SPD-SX Pad

“When I was young, I got bored quickly.” De los Reyes says. “I couldn’t sit still, so drums and percussion were perfect. I got to use all four limbs at once. My dad tried to get me to play piano when I was 12, but drumming was always my thing. I took them apart and built new ones from scratch. Could I have been something else? I don’t think so. I love music too much. I think it was all meant to be.”

Daniel’s grandfather, Walfredo de los Reyes II, was born in Cuba and helped found Casino de la Playa, one of the most popular Cuban bands of the ’40s and ’50s. His father was a bandleader, percussionist, and studio musician in Cuba, playing with Tito Puente, Cachao, Tito Rodriguez, Perez Prado, and Armando Peraza, to name just a few. Daniel was born in New York and raised in Las Vegas, where his father moved to find steady work in show bands, backing up performers like George Burns, Milton Berle, and Debbie Reynolds. “As soon as my dad saw I was serious about drumming, he sat my ass down in front of a music stand with a copy of George Lawrence Stone’s Stick Control book.”

Jazz And Beyond

Daniel admits his father had a hard time controlling him. He wanted to go wild and improvise, but his dad wanted to make sure he had a firm foundation in the basics. Finally, he sent young Danny to study with Irv Klooger, one of the best jazz drummers in town. They hit it off. “I started with Irv when I was 11. He finally taught me how important it was to stay focused. I’d leave the lesson, then go home and practice for the rest of the day.”

Klooger wasn’t the only teacher de los Reyes has access to. His father’s home was open to visiting musicians. Joe Morello, Billy Cobham, Alex Acuña, Cachao, Louie Bellson, and other greats would stop by for all-night jam sessions after the shows on the strip were over. Daniel soaked up their technique by observation and informal lessons.

“My dad was in the house band at The Desert Inn. When I was seven, he’d take me to work with him and sit me on the stage. I’d see Rich Little, Jimmie Dean, Wayne Newton, and other people hanging around. I’d watch him rehearse a song one or two times, then go play the show and kill them. My playground was the backstage area of the hotels.”

By the time he was in high school, de los Reyes was playing at a professional level. When the Louie Belson Big Band did a performance for a University Of Las Vegas drum class, de los Reyes was able to sit in and acquit himself admirably. Shortly after graduating, he got a gig with the Ben Vereen show and started touring professionally. He played percussion and his brother, Walfredo de los Reyes IV, played traps. “Between tours with Ben, I’d play in lounge bands, or cover bands, anything to keep the music going.”

While he is capable of knocking off a John Bonham drum solo on the traps, de los Reyes has always favored the congas. “I like the feel of the drum head on my skin,” he explains. “Growing up, my brother would be in the practice room with the kit if my dad wasn’t home, so I’d go outside with a conga.”

Back To The Roots

A few years ago, de los Reyes cut his first album as a bandleader, San Rafael 560, a collection of classical Cuban tunes from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. His father and brother played on the sessions. “In my parent’s house, these are the tunes my mother would put on when she woke up, there was the smell of coffee and the sound of Grand Combo. I remember the feeling that gave me.”

San Rafael 560 was the address of the de los Reyes family in Havana. The home is currently inspiring another project, a documentary about his family history and the Cuban music that was an integral part of their lives. “My grandfather’s band, Casino de la Playa, took the music out of Cuba and toured Mexico, Puerto Rico, and New York. They laid the foundation of everything we’re doing today [in Latin music]. My dad went back and forth between New York and Havana, trading Cuban licks for jazz knowledge. The rhythms we hear today were created then. My dad and grandfather and their friends created it, but a lot of them are passing on. Since I started the project, we’ve lost a lot of drummers in their eighties and nineties, so time is critical. We want to get everyone together to interview them and maybe have them play. I’ll produce the soundtrack, doing music of the ’50s and ’60s with the pioneers who created it.

“It won’t be like the Buena Vista Social Club. It’ll be about the prominent musicians that could leave to play outside Cuba and work in the casinos and radio stations in the U.S., the guys who were playing at the Tropicana 40 years ago. I was talking to Candido the other day about the film; he’s going to be 92 this year. At the end of the conversation, he reprimanded me. ’I’m not going to be around forever. Could you call me more often?’ He was right, and it reminded me that the clock was ticking. I have to get this done.”