Dafnis Prieto

Show of hands: How many DRUM! readers consider a frying pan to be an essential part of their kit? We know of one — and what’s intriguing is that, aside from this handy utensil, Dafnis Prieto insists on playing a bare-bones setup.

“I try to use a simple drum set that you can get a lot of sounds out of,” the Cuban-born, MacArthur Fellowship Award winner says. “I like the idea of getting different sounds from one single drum because I believe you carry your sound within yourself. It’s not the drums. It’s the drummer.”

Judging from Prieto’s performances and recordings since his relocation to the United States in 1999, he must host a universe of sounds in his body, mind, and heart. This helps to explain the impression he creates on his latest album, Triangles And Circles: that he has recruited a phalanx of percussionists to lay down intricate patterns over his challenging, multiple-meter compositions.

But it’s actually just Prieto, playing his kick, snare, three toms, three cymbals, occasionally a woodblock and cowbell — and, of course, the frying pan, which harks back to his upbringing in Cuba, where carnival participants often strap two of them from their waist to play as they walk.

His references are jazz, Afro-Cuban, and assorted Latin influences he picked up during his long stay in New York. He was spotted very soon after arrival: as early as 2002, The New York Times singled him out as being part of “a small tradition of Cuban drummers who hit New York like asteroids.” In short order, he was picking up commissions and grants, conducting masterclasses, and working with Eddie Palmieri, Steve Coleman, Henry Threadgill, Giovanni Hidalgo, and other luminaries while also leading his own bands.

Recently, though, he moved to more sedate quarters in Florida. “Remember,” he points out, “I’m from a small town in Santa Clara.” That’s Santa Clara, Cuba, of course. Born in 1974, he grew up in a loving but totally nonmusical family. That’s not to say there wasn’t a lot to listen to and pique his childhood curiosity. “I remember my mom making coffee,” he says. “When she stirred the spoon to put in the sugar, I was very interested in the sound and the rhythmic patterns she created. In my neighborhood, there were lots of rumberos — people that played rumbas,” he adds. “Everyone lived with their windows open, so I would hear them rehearsing. I was surrounded by music.”

Prieto’s first interest was classical and Spanish guitar. When he joined an ensemble at the Santa Clara School Of Fine Arts that already was overstaffed with guitarists, he switched to bongos. Shortly after that, the kid whose job it was to play clave didn’t show up, so Prieto subbed by clicking the pattern with his mouth while playing the bongo part as well.

That did it: a percussionist was born. For the next several years, Prieto received instruction on snare, xylophone, timpani, and other orchestral instruments. Just before he turned 15, he was accepted into the National School Of Music in Havana, where his classical studies continued for another four years.

More significantly, at age 11, he discovered a trap set in a rehearsal room at his school. Now the transformation was complete: Without any formal lessons, Prieto woodshedded on the kit. Foreshadowing of his unique style took shape as he drew from performance practice on every percussion instrument.

“Now,” he admits, “when I listen to myself, I think, ‘Wow, I’m covering a lot of things that the conga or the timbales play!’ So for most of the music I write, you can integrate percussion into it, but it’s not conceived primarily to have the percussionists because I cover that in my own playing on the drums.”

Quick Licks

Blah Blah Blah

Dafnis Prieto isn’t stifled by the strict conventions of traditional Latin rhythms, but instead uses the clave as a guide, playing with as much freedom as he sees fit. This extends to the clave-tinged second line feel on “Blah Blah Blah.” Here, Prieto fills up the entire sound spectrum by using syncopated kick, buzz strokes, ghosted notes, rimshots, open hi-hat punctuations, and a seven-stroke roll between hi-hat and snare.

Dafnis Prieto Into The Fire

Not only that: A year and a half spent in Barcelona, Spain, followed by his immersion into the New York scene, encouraged Prieto’s inclination to absorb as many influences as possible into his work. “Even when there’s a kind of music that’s not necessarily my favorite, I try to look for something positive to learn from it,” he says. “So I got a lot from the Puerto Rican/salsa scene in New York because it’s different from the way they do it in Cuba. It’s even different from the way they do it in Puerto Rico.

“I’m not a regionalist when it comes to music or anything, for that matter,” he elaborates. “We all express music the way we feel it in each particular region. That doesn’t make anything better or worse than anything else. It just makes us different, and I like differences. I like the differences between people as much as I like our similarities.”

As if tearing down cultural barriers weren’t enough of a challenge, Prieto composes mostly in difficult or multiple meters — and he makes it all feel like he and his band are cruising in 4/4. Often, he pulls this off by building everything around a basic motif, which becomes a reference point for listeners even as it might be chopped up or stretched out. On the title cut, “Triangles And Circles,” that motif centers on two notes, the I and V, which cut like a lighthouse beam through a turbulent if catchy storm of rhythm.

“It’s like in a conversation, where you plant the seed of an idea you want to develop later,” Prieto notes. “I try to approach composition in a very organic way, the way it feels at the moment I’m writing. It’s what the music asks me to do.”

Apparently the music loves asking Prieto to make the complicated seem simple. Asked if he always wanted to push beyond basic time signatures, he replies, “I’ve always been interested in the beyond of anything. When you do different time signatures, the idea is to make it sound as comfortable as if you were playing in a regular 4/4. You go to India, you go to Pakistan, you go anywhere in the Middle East, and you see kids three years old dancing in 7/4 and 15/8, singing and clapping at the same time.”

The same applies as much to soloing as to laying down the rhythm foundation. On “Blah Blah, Blah” Prieto opens with a New Orleans second-line feel, except it’s in … well, why bother to count? Just dig it.

That’s what he advises when listening to his long solo spot toward the end, which grooves even as the band stutters and stops behind him. “I try to be conscious of the time signature when I solo, but I’m not counting,” he says. “We’re not supposed to be counting; we’re supposed to be singing, with the music inside. When I’m playing the drums, I’m not thinking about drums only. I’m singing the melody.

“On ‘Blah Blah’ I just follow the bass line. I’ve internalized it, so I can play with it on and off, coming in and out freely rather than getting lost in the meter. Rather than count in 7, I’d want to learn a bass line in 7 that inspires me to interact with it. When you internalize it, you own it. So my advice to drummers is: Don’t count. Sing!”


Band Dafnis Prieto Sextet
Current Release Triangles And Circles
Website dafnisonmusic.com
Age 41
Birthplace Santa Clara, Cuba
Influences Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Buddy Rich, Tony Williams, Changuito


Drums Yamaha
Cymbals Sabian
Heads Evans
Sticks Vic Firth
Hardware Yamaha Percussion, Latin Percussion