Fausto Cuevas: Berklee, Bongos, Britney!

Fausto Cuevas remembers precisely the moment he decided to throw in his sticks and become a percussionist.

It happened in June 1995. Since then, he’s made his name as a hand drummer to the stars, with credits that include senior heartthrob Julio Iglesias, Cuban legend Celia Cruz, R&B chanteuse Teena Marie and, most famously, Britney Spears.

But up to that day when Cuevas, then attending the Berklee College Of Music, passed by the dorm room of Renato Thoms and heard something interesting inside, he had spent most of his life behind a drum set and planned to pass the rest of it there too. “Growing up in Brownsville, Texas, the only percussion I heard was orchestral or in marching band,” he says. “I had barely been interested in Tito Puente. I’d never even heard of Celia Cruz. I was just totally into rock, jazz, and symphonic stuff.”

Of course, living just a five-minute walk from Mexico, Cuevas was familiar as well with the sounds of his heritage: norteño music, which his father enjoyed, the romantic trio style favored by his grandfather, and the dynamic tejano sound, a horn-driven variation on Colombian cumbia that Grupo Mazz had pioneered right there in Brownsville.

He heard other music too — pop tunes on a radio station from up in the Rio Grande Valley, country music elsewhere on the dial. But rock and roll first captured his imagination. “I was in sixth grade,” he remembers, “when my cousins in Matamoras exposed me to it. They were listening to Def Leppard, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, KISS, and they got me tuned into that whole vibe.”

This was in the late ’70s or early ’80s, when Cuevas was old enough to get restless with the tempo of life on the southernmost tip of Texas. Except for the occasional catastrophe — he remembers boarding up the house with his family and huddling against the ravages of Hurricane Allen in 1983 — days were long and lazy. The weather was humid and hot enough to literally fry eggs on the sidewalk, as Cuevas and his friends would do for kicks. Winters passed quickly — a whisper of rain, a brief and tiny dip in the temperature, and then gone.

The Cuevas family ran a restaurant, one of the oldest in town. Like his brother and sister, Cuevas began working there at age six, bussing tables, bringing in groceries, running the cash register. The values that he learned on the job followed him home, where he cleaned the yard, cut the grass, and did whatever else had to be done. Everyone in that household shared a respect for hard work and loyalty. But even as a kid, Cuevas sensed that he had something that his parents and siblings lacked.

“I was the only musical one — the black sheep,” he says, laughing. “My mom and dad can’t sing or play a lick. My brother and sister tried, but forget it. But I was already into music when I was three years old.”

As soon as cable was installed at home, Cuevas tuned into HBO and began watching the concert specials: Elton John, Earth, Wind & Fire. Right away the drums caught his ear, and in the familiar ritual of budding drummers, he started pulling spoons from the kitchen drawer and bashing on his mother’s pots and pans. He annoyed his father by adding the phone book to his setup and hammering at it until he had pulverized the cover and several pages as well.

Then there was the wedding gig. “When I was about three years old,” Cuevas recalls, “my mom and dad took me to a wedding, and then they lost me. They were tripping out. All these people were looking for me. All of a sudden, some guy said, ’Look, here’s your son.’ I was up on the stage, next to the drummer’s floor tom and under the snare, trying to hit the bass drum, which was taller than I was at the time. Man, even then, all I knew was that I loved the drums.”

His feelings for drums were so compelling that when he placed high for saxophone in a music test given in fifth grade, he refused to play it and dug in his heels until being allowed to play drums in the sixth-grade band. His father bought him a Slingerland snare drum, on which Cuevas practiced diligently at home, up to and beyond the point that, as he remembers, his parents were looking helplessly at each other and wondering, “What the hell have we done?”

The school band teacher at that time meant well but, being a French horn player, wasn’t an ideal first instructor. That changed when his replacement, Paul Brazauskas, took over. Brazauskas wasn’t only a drummer; he was a big-band veteran from Chicago and an author of several drum manuals, including Panhandle Paradiddle, a collection of solos for snare drum, Ram Rock, for percussion quintet, and works for solo timpani.

“He was no joke,” says Cuevas, who maintains a close friendship with Brazauskas. “He taught me the rudiments when I was eleven years old; I learned them all by heart. Double-stroke rolls, paradiddles, double paradiddles, ratamacues, double and triple ratamacues — I grew up with that stuff. And I enjoyed practicing them more than anything in the world.”

In 1988, at age 15, he got his first kit, a Pearl Export. This intensified his zeal: Soon he was listening to every record he could find by Poison, Mötley Crüe, Stryper, Journey, Van Halen, and other bands, memorizing each flam and playing it back on his kit. To this he added a new fascination, in his sophomore year, with fusion drummers, whom he discovered through a friend, Armando Medrano, and two guys with connections to Berklee, an alumnus named Danny Dale, who had come back home to Brownsville, and Marc Ramirez, whose brother had gone to the Boston school.

“They brought that vibe down here,” Cuevas says. “Dave Weckl, Steve Gadd, Vinnie Colaiuta: None of those guys ever came down to Brownsville. Nobody here knew about jazz except for people who had left the state and come back. But through them I started getting together with some other young guys, watching the videos and getting into Chick Corea and Weckl when I was a junior and thinking, ’Man, these cats are sick.’”

Bear in mind that there weren’t many performance options for a kid in the Rio Grande Valley. During this time, Cuevas was mainly shedding at home, doing marching and jazz band at school, playing some dances, and dreaming about doing real gigs someday. His first taste of that world came when he was 16, when he was finally old enough to work the clubs of South Padre Island during spring break. It was, you might say, a baptism by fire — as well as one or another recreational substance.

“You saw the Girls Gone Wild video? That’s what it was like,” he says, smiling. “You have a little town of maybe 2,000 people year-round, and then from the end of February to the beginning of April there’s up to 80,000 on the island. I was there, playing Rush in these bars where customers would say, ’You guys are incredible!’ And they’d buy each band member a bucket of beer. If we’d start at eight o’clock and play until one or two in the morning, I’d have six buckets of beer behind my drums by the time I was done.”

Somehow Cuevas made it through these gigs and graduated from high school. His father, whose belief in hard work and common sense remained in place, wasn’t thrilled with Cuevas’s plans to play music professionally, but the two did reach a compromise that each could live with for at least a while. “He was like, ’You’ve got to be crazy, but if you have to get into music, you’d better be a band director or a teacher because that’s the only way you’ll find any security,’” Cuevas says. “So I auditioned for Sam Houston State College, which was known for having a great music education program, and I got in with a scholarship.”

Even so, he dodged music education classes until his sophomore year, when one day he was finally sat down and informed that he was about to learn how to play the flute. “To become a music educator,” he explains, “you learn enough about each instrument to go somewhere and start screwing kids up early by teaching them wrong. So they started me down that path by giving me this flute, and I’m like, ’What are you doing, man? This ain’t no drumstick.’ And then when we had to take this big-ass, half-of-your-grade exam, I told the teacher I wasn’t going to play it. My teacher was like, ’Not even one note? Okay, you’re cool to leave.’ I waited for him in his office to tell him what I was struggling with, and do you know what he said? He told me, ’You’ve got to follow your heart.’ He was the first guy in that kind of position who told me that. If I’d listened to my high school counselor about being secure and getting a degree, I wouldn’t be doing what I do now.”

This advice, augmented by an unpleasant experience involving a band teacher who couldn’t understand why Cuevas, being of Mexican descent, couldn’t play with the right feel on a Brazilian chart, motivated him to cut his ties to Sam Houston and apply for admission to Berklee. This time there was no scholarship, and acceptance was provisional, depending on how he would do during a preliminary, 12-week summer session. Then there was the issue of how different Boston would be from anything the Cuevas family had experienced: Up to that point in his life, Cuevas had never been north of Houston, aside from short vacations he took as a kid to Disneyland and Disney World.

None of that deterred the young student, who drove to Houston to pick up some instructional materials, including Dave Weckl’s Contemporary Drummer + One and Funkifying The Clave: Afro-Cuban Grooves For Bass And Drums, by Lincoln Goines and Robbie Ameen. He ramped up his practice schedule until he felt ready, more or less, for the next step in his education.

He arrived in 1993, and right away he felt at home. “It wasn’t about cats just going to school to get a degree,” he says, “It was about cats who played, who were doing gigs, making something of themselves. And you had actual relationships with the teachers. There’s no false bullshit, like, ’You gotta call me doctor, because I went to school for 800 years and you don’t know shit.’ You can actually sit with these people, have a beer or go to lunch or even do gigs with them. That’s the beautiful thing about Berklee: The teachers see your talent. They help you out. They put you in musical situations and recommend you for gigs.”

Cuevas started out with John Ramsay as his drum instructor. He took ear training with George Zonce, who had played first-chair trumpet for Buddy Rich. He got exposed to pre-fusion jazz and dug into recordings by Philly Joe Jones and Jimmy Cobb. He was on track for the career he’d always wanted, as a drummer perched on a throne behind his kit. But all of that went out the window of the fifth floor of that Massachusetts Avenue dorm on the day Renato Thoms, sensing that his friend was hovering outside, invited him in.

“I was walking past when I heard him hitting this cowbell,” Cuevas says. “The door was cracked open, so I looked in, and he said, ’Diri’ — for some reason, he called me Diri; I don’t know why — ’Come in here!’ He’s dancing around, playing this cowbell to a video of a salsa festival that was done at Madison Square Garden. He had these congas set up, so he said, ’Diri, play these!’ It was a marcha, so I started doing this pattern. I was off by just one beat in my left hand, and he’s like, ’Have you ever played congas before? Man, you’re good!’

“From that moment,” Cuevas insists, “I was hooked.”

Traps took a backseat to percussion, as he switched his focus. That fall he caught an in-store performance by Cuban saxophonist Paquito d’Rivera, celebrating the release of his 40 Years Of Cuban Jam Session CD. Horacio “El Negro” Hernández was on drums for that gig; his performance helped Cuevas map out his segue to percussion through Latin-groove patterns. A mutual friend, Berklee professor Victor Mendoza, introduced them, and after a while Cuevas began working informally as El Negro’s drum tech.

At about the same time, he got to know Giovanni Hidalgo, who became his first inspiration on congas; in a repeat of his epiphany with Thoms, Cuevas overheard him practicing on a quiet afternoon at Berklee and sat in on a nearby drum set; they wound up playing for nearly two hours together. Inspired by these contacts, and again by hearing Marc Quiñones and Bobby Allende at a clinic during Percussion Week at Berklee, Cuevas started practicing at least nine and sometimes even ten hours a day. Studies with Ernesto Diaz and Mikael Ringquist accelerated his development to the point that, in 1998, he left the school and accepted an invitation to go on the road with Julio Iglesias.

It took six months for Cuevas to burn out on that gig and head back to Brownsville. Discouraged by the shortage of work there, he left after two and a half years to tour with Cirque Ingénue, a Cirque de Soleil production in which he played a humongous acoustic and electronic setup that was arranged around him in a circle. After six months of that, he joined the pit band on a traveling company of Smoky Joe’s Café. That ate up another six months, by which time Cuevas, married now and with a young daughter, decided to settle into a more regular routine.

Fortuitously, he got a call around this time from Ramon Banda, longtime timbalero with Poncho Sanchez’s band on the West Coast. Banda invited his old Boston colleague to come out to the Winter NAMM Show in early 2001. Cuevas flew out, went down to the convention center in Anaheim, and there, just ten minutes before the doors closed on the final day of the event, he ran into someone who would soon after change his life.

Bobby Allende had advised him to look out for a friend, Ricardo ’Tiki’ Pascillas, who had been playing percussion and timbales for several years in L.A. They did bump into each other, just as the show was shutting down, and exchange business cards. Later, when Cuevas called from Brownsville, Pascillas told him that he had a room to rent in his house and asked him to send out a demo tape. Once he had heard some examples of the young percussionist’s work, Pascillas invited him to move out west and offered to help him find work.

Cuevas arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on March 4, 2001. His new landlord was waiting for him and, within days, began shopping him to his studio connections. With help from Pascillas as well as Banda, Cuevas found a niche in this competitive scene and, within just a couple of years, was landing major dates, including his run with Britney Spears. Percussionist Kevin Ricard made that initial call, on behalf of music director Ricky Minor, inviting him to try out for the band. Cuevas, like almost everyone on earth, knew who Spears was and was happy to show up the next day at Center Staging Musical Productions in Burbank.

“Teddy Campbell ran the audition,” he remembers. “I hadn’t played with a drummer of Teddy’s caliber since 1998, when I’d left the East Coast, so when we started playing I was looking at him like, what? He had me play some electronics. Then I had to do a conga groove while playing stuff on 2 and 4 with my feet. The whole time I’m watching Teddy and thinking, ’God, what a monster!’ Then we got into more of my stuff, trading fours on a Latin groove. And in the end, I got the call.”

Though certainly the highest-profile gig Cuevas had ever played, the Spears show wasn’t his most satisfying experience. For one thing, ten of the twelve hours of his first rehearsal were spent on electronic percussion, with tons of new Pearl congas, timbales, and bongos lying around untouched. It was also made clear that the point of the show was to reproduce the record, not to jam or stretch out. Paraphrasing Ricky Minor, Cuevas says, “Each part is on the record for a reason. Play it. We don’t need your two cents. That gives respect to the artist. If you elaborate on something, they might feel weird. It’s not about showing everybody that you can play. You just do your job. But,” he adds, “I did have a timbale solo, a djembe solo, and a little conga solo at the end, which was great.”

He also had, recently, a kind of closure experience when he was hired to play a drum kit for a demo date. Producer Bryant Siono called, frantic because a drummer he had booked for the session had cancelled at the last minute. Cuevas had played some drums at the Beny Moré Festival in Cienfuegos, Cuba, three years ago, but other than that he hadn’t touched a kit in ten years. Reluctantly, he agreed, as a favor, listened to a rough tape of the tune that was rushed to him, and then went to Whittier to lay the track down the next day.

The result? “I just did it, man,” Cuevas shrugs. “I guess it was cool, but I did play differently than I would have ten years ago, because playing percussion has opened my mind. I hear spaces that regular drummers wouldn’t hear. So what can I say?”

Apparently, Cuevas can say whatever he wants, with or without sticks, as long as rhythm is the message.