Reyes Familia Values

A rare conversation with Walfredo Sr. and his sons, Walfredo Jr. and Daniel

De Los Reyes

Walfredo Reyes Sr. and his sons, Walfredo Reyes Jr. and Danny Reyes are joking around while they wait for photographer Paul Haggard to set up the shots that are to accompany this article. Walfredo Sr. is a tall man, with salt and pepper hair and a no-nonsense expression on his face. He’s wearing baggy black clothes, but his body has a powerful aura, as befits a man known for his vigorous drum attack. He’s been a professional musician for almost 50 years and was one of the first drummers to combine Cuban hand percussion – congas, bongos and timbales – with the Western drum kit. He’s played with some of the greatest artists of the 20th century, including Linda Ronstadt, Josephine Baker, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr., Debbie Reynolds and Wayne Newton.

Walfredo Jr. is a session heavy who’s added his licks to projects by a who’s who of modern music, including Celia Cruz, Gloria Estefan, Sergio Mendes, Tania Maria, Smokey Robinson and Carlos Santana. Currently Stevie Winwood’s musical director, Walfredo Jr. is also slim and dark-haired, but with an infectious smile. His barely contained energy bounces around the room and enlivens the scene.

The youngest, Danny, is also a hired gun and has played and recorded with Ricky Martin, Stevie Nicks, Lionel Richie and Miami Sound Machine. For the past four years he’s been a member of Yanni’s touring and recording unit. Danny has lighter hair, and sleepy, half-lidded eyes that give him a mysteriously sexy look. He appears to be a perfect blend of his brother and father – he has his dad’s quiet intensity and when he speaks, he leans forward and taps out rhythms on invisible percussion instruments, just like his brother.

As we wait for the photo session, we listen to San Rafael 560, Danny’s debut session as a bandleader, and the first release on his own Sabor Records. All three members of the familia Reyes played on the sessions, a collection of classical Cuban tunes from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s – music Walfredo Sr. calls “the real stuff.” The three drummers are doing dance steps, keeping time with their nodding heads and discussing the finer points of the rhythms and melodies. Danny is putting together a band in L.A. to tour behind the release and is telling his brother and dad how he intends to change the arrangements to fit the live situation. After the photos are taken, we sit down at a small table to talk about drumming and the illustrious history of the de los Reyes family.

DRUM!: All of you had fathers who were famous musicians. Let’s start by talking about the advantages and disadvantages of growing up in a house full of professional musicians.

Walfredo Sr.: I was born in Havana, on June 16, 1933. My father was lead trumpeter for Casino de la Playa, one of the great Cuban orchestras. He moved us to New York City and became famous in the U.S. as well. In Cuba, we lived in a big house on San Rafael Street, number 560, which is why Danny called his album San Rafael 560. All my uncles lived there with my granddad and grandmom, who was a piano teacher. The Orchestra Casino de la Playa rehearsed there. There were always musicians hanging around. When they left the drums unattended, I’d I grab them and play. I had my own bongos at age five.

My dad didn’t want me to be a musician. My mom’s family wanted me to go into law, but when I was a kid, I always wanted to be where the music was. My mom would send me to the park with my nanny, but on the way we’d pass a house and they’d be playing rumba and guaguanco, and I’d go in there and listen to the drumming instead of going to the park.

In 1940, there was a demand for experienced Latin musicians [in the U.S.] so my dad moved us to New York. He could sing boleros, he was famous and handsome and as soon as he got here, Anselmo Sacasas, de la Playa’s piano player and arranger, started a band that my dad joined. They were immediately successful. He had offers to go with Desi Arnaz and Xavier Cougat, but I was going to Music and Arts High School, so he took jobs that let him stay in the city. Summer vacations I spent in Havana, where I picked up the real Cuban music. In New York I picked up the jazz, so I was able to develop two musical cultures at the same time.

Danny: The minute I started hitting on things, the way kids do, my father put drumsticks in my hand and said, “This is the way you hold them.” I never had any choice. [Dad and brother chuckle.]

Walfredo Jr.: I grew up when we lived in Puerto Rico, and the music biz was different then. My dad would come home for dinner after rehearsing all day, then go back to play gigs at night in the hotels and showrooms. I started late, but when I wanted to play drums, he sat me down and said he’d show me what he knew, so I could make enough money to pay my way through medical school. [Everybody laughs.] When I came home from school, the living room was always full of Latin music, as well as records of jazz drummers like Buddy Rich and Tony Williams, plus the stuff I liked, Motown, Cream, Stax, Led Zep. So I listened to Latin, jazz and pop. Eventually, Dad started digging some of the things I turned him onto – Tower of Power, Blood Sweat and Tears, Emerson Lake and Palmer – and we met in the middle.

Walfredo Sr.: The environment in Puerto Rico is very musical, people are always singing and playing guitar, congas, tumbadores and timbales. There are folkloric celebrations with music; Christmas goes on for three months, parties every night, dominated by the drums, of course. I remember going out to pick up the mail, and the guys on the corner, who played plena and bomba, asked if I was a musician. I told them I was a drummer and it took me three hours to get the mail. The same happens in Cuba, everywhere you go, you hear a drum or a timba [party].

Danny: Pop would take us to clubs to see shows [in Las Vegas], and his musician friends were always stopping at the house. He told us we should do something else, but there was always a jam session going on.

Walfredo Sr.: The big pop stars played the hotels, so I’d take the kids to see them, and their drummers. Buddy Rich and Louis Bellson would play, and we’d sit backstage and watch, but I never pressured them. I wanted them to be professionals of some kind, and if they wanted to play, I wanted them to have the training. Playing percussion for Juliet Prouse was Danny’s first gig. Then Debbie Reynolds came along and she couldn’t say “Walfredo” to save her life, so she started calling Junior “Frito.” Walfredo was playing with a 35- or 40-piece orchestra, watching the conductor and reading music, of course.

Walfredo Jr.: Some people only see the stars on stage, but backstage you see the real story. Ugly things happen, people scream at each other, you see the five hours of rehearsal it takes to put on a one-hour show. You see it’s not all wine and roses. My dad had five children and if he didn’t have work, the roof could fall in. I tell my kids, last night I was playing with Steve Winwood, today I’m on unemployment.

DRUM!: You’ve all had long careers. How has the business changed in the past decade?

Walfredo Sr.: It’s hard. Even with a degree, you have to hustle and wait in line, like everybody else – the same in this business. Forty or fifty years ago, it was different. The unions were stronger and the musicians were better protected. Today it’s freelance.

Walfredo Jr.: Before, you could specialize. If you played bongos, you could get a secure gig and get your benefits. Drummers today have to be versatile. You may land a gig in a band and sell platinum, but the more you have going – drumming, percussion, electronics, songwriting – the better. You can produce, teach, travel, tour; you have to be versatile. You have to keep studying and learning new styles and techniques. But it’s exciting. You can go from a symphony gig to a session to a tour.

Walfredo Sr.: One of the downfalls in Las Vegas was that the hotel bands had drummers and percussionists, so when an artist came in with a band, the drummer would take off, but still get paid. So they got rid of the percussionists and hired drummers who could play percussion. When an act had a drummer, he would go to the percussion. I had to learn timpani, mallets and diversify. That’s how I stayed in Las Vegas.

Walfredo Jr.: One advantage I had as a son was that my father was always home. Now that I’m a dad, I’m always traveling, which my son doesn’t like. So thanks, Dad, for staying around. Years ago if you wanted to do a demo, you had to get a drummer. If you did a session, you had to have a drummer. There were no samples or computers. Now you get a drum machine. Technology is great, but it’s harder for drummers.

Walfredo Sr.: Musical education in school, starting in grammar school, is very important. Orchestras, bands of all kinds, jazz and pop, where kids can get into the music and stay away from drugs and gangs. Music should be in every school.

Walfredo Jr.: I remember talking to Joe Sample, and he said, “What is it with you drummers? You have your PAS [Percussion Arts Society] conventions, ensembles, clubs, magazines. Piano players don’t have that.” And it’s true, you can have a hundred percussionists on stage and everyone will find a different part, and you’ll have this humongous musical conversation. There’s a family thing that happens. Can you imagine a hundred guitar players playing together? I doubt it. So in the detention centers, you have kids who are on their own in the world, and percussion teaches them to play together. If you can play rhythms with each other, you can learn how to function better in society, relating to other human beings.

Walfredo Jr.: I don’t want to sound like a teacher, but at one time all civilizations on Earth had drums. We tend to think of drumming as something highly evolved, the way it is in Africa and India, where you can spend a lifetime learning various subtleties. Iceland has drums. Eskimos have drums. The Irish have drums. The Russians have drums. In every nation on Earth, you’ll find drums.

De Los Reyes

DRUM!: All three of you are equally versed on drum set and percussion. Do you think it’s important for drummers to know how to play all the percussion instruments in order to be competitive these days?

Danny: Like our dad, we play drums and percussion; when we play drums we integrate percussion, and vice versa. Our setups are hybrids. My brother plays more drums than percussion, where I have a setup full of percussion with drums and pedals.

Walfredo Jr.: You have to learn it all, then, like a cook, you serve what they want. Sometimes you have to boil a hot dog, and put a bit of catsup on it, that’s all. But if they ask for rice and chicken, Cuban style, you can do it, without the microwave. I have more electronics and samplers than I need, ethnic percussion, vintage drum kits, Roland Octopads and a library of percussion sounds and samples. For me, it’s fun to be able to say, “Anyway you want it done, I can do it.”

Walfredo Sr.: In the early ’40s, when I was a kid, there were already musicians going toward diversification. I remember following Candido, who is one of my heroes, around to the radio sessions he was doing in Cuba. I’d watch him play two sets of congas at once – he’d play solos with the left hand, rhythms with the right, and play cowbell with the left foot. And one of the players had a setup of chromatic conga drums. He had them set up like a vibraphone and he’d play melodies on that while he whistled the tune. So all these guys did that back then.

In New York City the Puerto Rican drummers had to play tangos, fox trots, society music. They’d set up the kit and then put timbales where the snare usually is, or on the side so they could make a quick move, from tango to timbales, for a bolero. There was a famous drummer, Umberto Morales, brother of Noro Morales, and he had that kind of setup in ’46 or ’47. He’d play the shows then go play timbales in dance bands for kicks. He had a 20” bass drum, and I’d go see him when he was playing with his brother and started picking up that there was more to Latin than playing timbales. That’s why I told my kids to study all the different techniques. That was why I started doing it. If I have two hands and two feet, why not put them to work? When I heard a guy doing quarter-notes on the tom-tom, I thought: “I can do that with my foot.” When I heard a guy playing easy things on the conga with two hands, I knew I could do it with one. So I played it with one, that’s how I got my style of playing percussion and drums together that I started in ’51 at the National Hotel in Havana, Cuba. Today, everybody’s doing it.

Walfredo Jr.: It’s economics too. I got a call to do a jingle for an advertisement, and they’re doing a Spanish version for the Latin market and a rock one in English. I can do them both. The Latinos are going mainstream with Ricky Martin and Marc Anthony, and the Americans are studying the Latin styles or tablas and African music. And my dad showed us the way to integrate those different worlds. When I started with Santana, in ’88, I played timbales with my left hand and drums with my right. In ’94, when Steve Winwood called me for Traffic, Jim Capaldi was the drummer, and I played percussion, Latin and world music, and when Capaldi wanted to step out to sing, I got behind the drum kit. These days with Steve [Winwood]’s band, I’m a drummer, but I keep my percussion on the side, so when the music dictates it, I can become a percussion ensemble. People may think I’m showing off when I’m playing tambourine, cowbell, conga, drums and timbales, but I’m trying to recreate what was done in the studio with maybe six tracks of overdubbed percussion and drumming. The same when I toured with Robbie Robertson. He couldn’t afford to bring a tribe of Indian drummers, so I had all the native drums integrated into my setup.

Danny: You could put those sounds on a sequencer, but when you play live, you have to lock in, and people love to see the drummer doing his thing.

Walfredo Sr.: Sampling will never replace the human feel, never. My wish would be to move next door to Trilok Gurtu. There’s a man who has done it all and can play it all. I would love to play with him and learn.

DRUM!: How many hours a day do you practice? How do you stay on top of things in the business?

Walfredo Sr.: I like to play with younger players who come over, then maybe go to the studio for two hours, maybe watch videos of the younger players. There are a lot of young guys these days that I’ve learned from.

Walfredo Jr.: When I’m on the road, I practice technique. At home, I have three children to raise, so I don’t always have time, but I’ve developed ways of practicing that aren’t [necessarily while] sitting in front of the drums. On the way here, for example, I was listening to a demo for a session. [First,] I learn the form, I get into the music, and then memorize the intro, the verse, chorus, notice if it has a pre-chorus. My ear helps me get a musical picture of what to do when I play the session. It’s one thing to practice and another to play a two-hour show with energy and commitment, so you have to work out to keep in shape, as well as knowing the music and the technique.

Danny: I’d like to practice 10 or 12 hours a day, but other things are always going on. I play on pads in the car, when I’m waiting for a light or I’m thinking about new rhythms. If I have a tour coming up, I go to the gym and hit it hard, ’cause if you don’t, your muscles can stiffen up.

Walfredo Jr.: Another thing I learned is that tempo is important. The drummer holds things together, and you can’t forget your time or shift it around, because you throw the rest of the players into confusion. I’ve played with famous drummers – no names – but they have a hard time keeping a regular tempo. When you’re in a band, you’re not just playing for yourself, but to make everyone else comfortable.

Danny: There’s also a problem on stage with monitors and echo. The artist may be telling me, “You were off on such-and-such a tune,” but he’s wandering the stage, and when he’s over on the side, there may be no percussion in his monitor, so he only hears the echo of the shot I just played. How can he tell me I’m behind the beat, when he can’t hear me in his monitor?

Walfredo Jr.: Some artists and producers don’t realize that kind of stuff, so you have to educate them, as diplomatically as possible. When I was with Santana, he always told me to play louder. He couldn’t hear me, because [his amp] was so loud. I was playing as loudly as possible, but he thought I wasn’t playing. So you have to practice verbal communication. I’ve watched a lot of guys in sessions, and if they can talk to the artists or producers in a civilized manner, and tell them what’s on their mind, they can work it out.

Walfredo Sr.: That’s why Cubans have the clave. Nobody goes anywhere without the clave.

Danny: But that was in the old days, when you didn’t have the amplification you have today. Also, on the road, when you’ve all been hired for a tour, you may sound great on stage, but when everybody gets off, you don’t see them again until the next show, so it’s hard to form that bond.

Walfredo Jr.: You used to have bands like the Beatles, where everybody grew up together, and you had a common language, musically and socially. It was a band, not somebody’s project.

DRUM!: You’re obviously all aware of the surge of interest in Latin, African and other drum cultures. Are you keeping up with the so-called world beat movement? Do you look to other cultures for inspiration?

Walfredo Jr.: My dad always told me that drumming comes from a culture, so if you want to drum, you have to get into the culture. You can’t learn reggae or classical Indian drumming from a book. You have to get into the culture somehow. Drumming opens the door. I remember 20 years ago, it was crazy to think of a rock band or a country band that would have a percussion chair in the band. Today Wynonna, Shania Twain, they all have percussionists. I get contractors calling me up, and a few years ago, a tambourine was considered percussion. Today they call me up and say, “You got a djembe, shekere, a clay drum?” or “You got a Roto-tom?”

Danny: My dad always got us into lots of different styles – Latin, Middle Eastern, Indian. When I got older and traveled to those countries, I could ask the locals if I could sit in, because I already had a bit of the feel for what they were playing. I had a head start, and it’s a wonderful feeling to be able play with them and then it all sinks in. You start thinking “Ah, so that’s where that comes from.”

DRUM!: Why don’t you talk about San Rafael 560? Is this the first time the three of you have played together on an album?

Danny: We’ve recorded before as a family, but it’s rare, with all of our schedules. This is the first time my dad and brothers and cousins were all there. I chose Cuban songs from the ’50s and ’60s, because they’re classics, things that I grew up with or got turned onto later on by my dad. Some of them are tunes my dad played on his albums. In my parent’s house, these are the tunes my mother would put on when she woke up – there’d be the smell of coffee and the sound of the El Gran Combo, and I remember the feeling that gave me. I didn’t have a big budget to record on, so I did tunes we all knew, that we could have fun jamming on.

The arrangements, like “Pa Poco Solo,” which is a tune my dad originally played on, stayed close to the old arrangements. It was the same map, but the soloists explored on their own. You don’t want to change the feel, but you want to let the soloists do their thing, within that ’40s and ’50s feel. Pedro Eustache, our flute player, even went back and studied the solos of Jóse Fajardo, so he could get it right.

Walfredo Sr.: I think because of the fame of Buena Vista Social Club, we’re listening again more to the Cuban sounds and the Cuban feel of the ’50s, and I think this album that Danny has done has captured that feel. It’s not a typical modern album, but it’s good to dance to and listen to. The tempos are perfect; you can put it on and it won’t blow your ears off. And it’s a tribute to the de los Reyes family, from his great grandfather on down. I’m very proud of it.

Walfredo Jr.: It’s great playing together, and getting our direction from the music. It’s like the cooking analogy I mentioned before –Dad plays timbales, we add a bit of congas and guiro and that’s it.