Ralph Irizarry: Ruben Blades’ Timbale Titan

“Ralph!” screamed the road manager. “The White House has got your pants!”

Ralph Irizarry, renowned timbalero, grabbed his road manager’s cell phone and jammed it into his ear. The confusion was evident, even through the teeny speaker. People were running around, barking orders at one another, shouting questions.

Then the voice of a Secret Service officer, authoritative and in control, cut through the din. “Sir,” it snapped, “we’ve located the trousers.”

“There was very little time for us to get out to the airport,” Irizarry explains, looking back on one of the most memorable gigs of his career. “So we drive like crazy to the big gate at the White House. I get out of the van, and there’s a butler there, dressed in a tuxedo, with this shopping bag that says ‘White House.’ He’s holding it with two fingers, like there’s something dead inside. And he says, ’Your trousers, sir.’ I take the shopping bag, I get back in the van, and we just make the flight.”

Now, much of the world knows Ralph Irizarry as an innovative timbalero whose work with Ray Barretto, Ruben Blades, and especially as leader of his own two groups — Timbalaye and Son Café — redefine the parameters of Latin jazz percussion. But he’s also a guy who seems to find himself in situations that you can laugh about after some decent amount of time has passed. On this particular day, he and Blades had just played at the White House for President Bill Clinton. They’d been given the royal treatment, with a tour of all the rooms that only kings and heads of state get to visit. They’d been given a warm sendoff and were on their way to a flight out of the country when Irizarry noticed that he was missing his passport.

“My road manager says, ‘Well, what pants did you have on?’” he remembers. “I said, ‘Oh, yeah, it must be in my pants pocket. But I can’t find my pants, so I told the tour manager, ’I think I left my pants hanging on the door inside the stall where I changed in the basement of the White House.’ So he calls the Secret Service, and all of a sudden everybody in the White House is running around trying to find my pants.”

Everything worked out okay in the end, much as it did after the equally surreal first meeting between Blades and his future timbalero … but we’ll get to that one in a minute. It’s important first to understand how Irizarry arrived at the position he enjoys today, as one of the most innovative percussionists — and one of the funniest cats — on the scene.

Chalk both up to his thirst for experience, in life as well as music. Long before launching his solo career, before his 13-year run with Blades, his first major gig with conga master Barretto, and his sessions with David Byrne, Paul Simon, Earl Klugh, Celia Cruz, and other headliners, Irizarry was a kid in New York City — but he wasn’t raised in any bosom of Latin music. In fact, he was more likely to hear klezmer or R&B; than salsa outside the first home he can remember, in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.

Ralph Irizarry playing drums

“I was born in Spanish Harlem, but we moved to Brownsville when I was just two years old,” he says, “so I have no recollection of being raised in a Latin neighborhood. There weren’t that many Hispanics or blacks in Brownsville at that time, in the ’50s; it was primarily Jewish. I grew up going to the mom-and-pop stores on the corner, drinking egg creams and eating pretzels. The little old men would give me candy and stuff. At night my mother and I would go window-shopping down Pitkin Avenue, completely safe, even at midnight. Everybody was very friendly. It was a great environment.”

They wound up in Brooklyn because Irizarry’s father, a hard-working believer in the American dream, dedicated himself to pulling his family up to the higher rungs of society — which meant, at that time, moving into areas where minorities hadn’t yet settled. As the neighborhood began to change and more black residents began moving in, Irizarry happily adapted: he made new friends and developed a taste for black-eyed peas and rice with collard greens, macaroni and cheese, and other soul food staples. He also began going with his pals to the Loews King Theater on Pitkin Avenue, where DJ Murray the K hosted regular live shows that featured Little Stevie Wonder, Martha And The Vandellas, Jackie Wilson, and other hot-ticket R&B; acts.

His father, though, eventually decided to move once more, this time to South Ozone Park in Queens, sometime in the early ’60s. Irizarry again found himself among non-Latin friends, though by this time he had started listening to music, Latin as well as pretty much everything else you could find on the radio or in his father’s store.

“He sold a variety of goods, including Spanish trios, bolero trios, Mexican singers, and Cuban music, on albums that he’d sell for 99 cents,” Irizarry recalls. “We’d wheel them out onto the sidewalk on a cart and blast them through a speaker all day. I was like a little businessman when I was eight or nine years old, running the cash register, and listening to all of this Spanish stuff or Cuban things by Cortijo y Su Combo or Machito.”

But this was only a part of Irizarry’s early playlist. He was into the Beatles, Motown, and Top 40 in general, and since age six or seven he had been listening to jazz. His oldest brother had returned from the Air Force back then, with a stereo system and a bunch of albums by Dexter Gordon, Freddie Hubbard, Miles Davis, and other post-bop giants. All of it fed into Irizarry’s growing interest in becoming a drummer.

The idea had been in his head since Brownsville, where Irizarry came across his first rumba, or rhythm jam session in a local park. There were always three or four conga players pounding away, but right from the start Irizarry had eyes only for the timbales. “There was always just one guy playing them,” he says. “He played standing up, while all the conga guys were sitting down. And he played it with sticks, which fascinated me. When he would do his rolls, it would always send chills up and down my spine. I just had to play that stuff.”

The opportunity presented itself when someone in the neighborhood, being short of cash, repaid a debt to Irizarry’s father by giving him a set of timbales. “My dad took it because he was getting tired of my brothers, my sister, and me all banging on the table to see who could jam better; we had these competitions over who would be the ’table king.’ When he brought the timbales in, we made sticks out of clothes hangers, which were made out of wood, and started banging the hell out of them. Now, in those days timbales had calfskin or goatskin heads, and on that first day we broke them all, so the timbales went up into the closet and that was that.”

For a while. One day, after they’d moved to Queens, somebody informed the family that plastic heads, durable and affordable, had come into the market. “So I went out and purchased some plastic heads and put them on the timbales,” Irizarry says. “It was love at first sight. The next day I went out and bought brand new timbales. I bought bells. I bought cymbals. I spent a whole bunch of money. And then I saw Tito Puente, who put the timbales out in front of the orchestra, and I said, ‘Wow … this is good.’”

Around that time he began playing his first gigs, as timbalero with a band led by singer Jorge Maldonado. (Forty years later, in 2005, Maldonado would record as guest vocalist on the current Son Café CD, ¡Bailando con Azúcar!) But before getting too much of a foothold in the local circuit, Irizarry got the news that he and his family would relocate yet again, this time to his parents’ original home in Puerto Rico.

“Actually, I was quite excited,” he says. “I was 17 years old and had never been there, but I had been seeing Puerto Rican bands at the Village Gate and different clubs around New York, so I couldn’t wait to take my timbales down to one of the places where this music was created.”

The excitement began to wear off almost immediately. “The first thing I saw when I got off the plane was this guy carrying a couple of chickens under his arms at the airport,” he laughs. “It was hot as hell — a different kind of heat. Then I looked around and saw that everybody was Puerto Rican, and this gave me a feeling that I had arrived, that I was finally home — until I started talking to other kids and realized that they spoke a different Spanish than I did. I was speaking a cross between Spanish and English, which everyone understood in New York, but people made fun of it in Puerto Rican. That pointed immediately to the fact that I was not from there — I was a ‘New Yorican.’ That’s not so prevalent now, but when we moved there, even if you had open arms and an open heart and you wanted to belong, you couldn’t get accepted.”

This didn’t exactly open the door toward finding gigs as a timbalero either. The best one, with La Terrifica, ended abruptly when one of the leaders booted him out to make room for one of his cousins. “The New Yorican was always the first to go,” Irizarry remembers, “even though the homeboys, the guys who were from there, weren’t doing such an incredible job. I also began to notice how they’d abandoned their folklore; the bomba and the plena, the folkloric rhythms of Puerto Rico, were pretty much sacrificed to play Cuban rhythms and the salsa monga” — literally, “moronic salsa,” which shifts the emphasis away from the beat and more toward the singer.

Ralph with his loved ones

“After three or four years of this I was sick and tired of the abuse that we New Yoricans had to put up with, so I decided to return to New York.” Moving in for a few months with one of his brothers, Irizarry accepted a day job that his sister had arranged for him at Merrill Lynch near Wall Street. He broke back into music with various bands that specialized in charanga, a nostalgic Latin genre that featured violins and wooden flutes, with rhythm parts restricted to simple repetitions. They worked in elegant rooms, such as the Copacabana, the Casablanca, the Cork & Bottle, and Barney Google’s, where Irizarry earned his paycheck mainly by tapping out quarter-notes on a cowbell. There were moments where he could stretch out a bit, though — and one such moment led to his first major break.

“I was working with Orquesta Novedades at the Corso Nightclub on 86th Street and Third Avenue,” he says. “It was snowing like hell that night, really coming down. The owner, Marty Allen, came up to me and said, ‘Ralph, I’ve invited Ray Barretto to come and see you play because he’s going to form a new band. I told him you were kind of hot, so he’s coming down.’ Well, of course, I got nervous. But after two sets there was no Ray Barretto. We started the third and last set at around 1:00 in the morning — and this was on a Sunday. I had already given up on Ray when we started the last tune, which just so happens to have had a timbale solo. I play the solo, and of course it was great because I knew Ray Barretto wasn’t there. And when I look up there’s this big guy, six-foot-three, in the front door, brushing off all this snow from his coat. It was Ray, and he promised to give me a call.”

That call didn’t come for three months, but right after that Irizarry was rushed into rehearsal for two weeks, after which he made his debut with the band at Madison Square Garden, opening for the Fania All Stars before 23,000 fans. It was a thrill he still remembers — and a challenge, especially after spending so much time doing charanga. “Ray played congas and he had a bongo player too,” Irizarry points out. “In charanga there are no bongos. You play the bells differently. You have to control your feelings. It swings, but if you’re not careful you can easily overplay. I went from that to Ray telling me, ’Ralphie, I need you to do a couple of cymbals, I need a snare, I need a floor tom, and a bass drum on this gig.’ So I went from playing quarter-notes on a little cha-cha bell to playing almost a whole drum kit.”

This was especially significant, given the fact that for all his love of rhythm and every kind of music, Irizarry had never been especially interested in playing a full set of drums. Before hooking up with Barretto, he’d never even touched a kick drum pedal. “I’m 100-percent timbalero,” he insists. “In fact, when I came back from Puerto Rico I started taking theory lessons from Freddie Waits; I’d pay him back by giving him timbale lessons. But I never sat at a drum set with him the four or five years I was going to his house. I was just never curious to go that far beyond the timbales.”

A gig is a gig, though, so Irizarry adjusted and even started to feel okay about the setup. Certainly the climate in Barretto’s band was more stimulating than the charanga gigs. “You must be creative within Ray’s arrangements,” Irizarry points out. “He demands it. His charts are just guides; you have to add your own voice. Right after I’d started with him I tried to sneak in this little fill, and he stopped the band and said, ’What the hell was that? Why did you sneak that in? If there’s something you want to say on your instrument, as long as you feel it, do it loud! Play it!’ That really inspired me, that he was so secure with his position that he wanted his musicians to be creative.”

After more than four years with Barretto, Irizarry heard that several musicians had recommended him to fill a timbale vacancy with Ruben Blades. With Barretto’s blessing he accepted an invitation to meet at the superstar bandleader’s house, which was near Columbus Circle and Central Park in New York. The doorman waved him in, and upstairs he ran into members of the band, who informed him that Ruben was on his way.

That’s when Irizarry decided to make himself at home.

“Everybody was in the living room, but I was kind of hungry, so I go into the kitchen and I see these potato chips on the counter. I open them up and start eating. But, you know, you get thirsty, so I open his refrigerator and he has some cans of Coke. Now I have a can of Coke and some potato chips, and I’m walking around, and I see a door. I open the door and it’s his bedroom. He’s got this 36″ movie screen/TV, and I see the remote control on the bed, so I turn the TV on. I sit on the edge of the bed. I’m eating the potato chips and the Coca-Cola. I start getting a little more comfortable, so I prop up a couple of pillows, and I’m laying against the pillows with my feet halfway up the bed, eating the potato chips and drinking the Coca-Cola.”

Then the bedroom door opens and Ruben Blades looks in.

“Now, I’ve never met him before,” Irizarry continues, “and I’m on his bed, watching his TV, drinking his Coca-Cola, and eating his chips. He doesn’t say nothing to me. He closes the door, goes into the living room, and says, ‘Yo, guys … who’s that guy watching my TV, eating my chips, and drinking my Coke?’ They say, ‘That’s your timbalero, Ralph Irizarry.’ And that’s how I met Ruben Blades.”

ralph playing music with the band

Somehow this led to a 13-year association with Blades, whose innovative sound — Latin music spiced up with a full drum kit, synthesizers, and multiple musical influences — earned bookings at major venues and jazz festivals throughout the world, not to mention that memorable appearance at the White House. For all its attractions, though, Irizarry eventually reached the point where he knew he had to make his own statement, so in 1996 he gave notice and launched Timbalaye with its debut on the Shanachie label.

As an unrepentant timbalero, Irizarry sees Timbalaye as more than a burning band — it’s also a personal statement. “I wanted to do a Latin jazz project without a trap set,” he explains. “If you listen to It’s Time, our latest record, you’d think there’s a trap drummer, a timbalero, and a bongo player, all at the same time — but that’s me, playing everything at once. I’m able to do any kind of backbeat funk rhythm and continue to play the bells, and I play an 18″ Roto Tom with my left hand as a kick drum, so you hear kick, snare, and closed hi-hat. In other words, I’ve started with what Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo were doing with Cal Tjader — a great rhythm section playing jazz tunes with Latin rhythms — and gone a step further by doing it myself.

“What I’m trying to say is that I love trap drummers, but authentic Latin instruments in Latin jazz can say as much as a great trap drummer can say with all his stuff.”

And it’s even better when the timbalero remembers his pants.

Ralph's rig drum set

Ralph’s Rig

Percussion: LP and Remo
1. 18″ Remo Roto Tom with 18″ Ring Control Muffle
2. 10″ Remo Snare
3. 15″ LP 257 Bronze Timbale
4. 14″ LP 257 Bronze Timbale
5. LP 228 Black Beauty Cowbell
6. LP 007 Rock Bell
7. LP 1207 Jam Block
8. LP ES-6 Salsa Mambo Bell
9. LP ES-2 Salsa Cha Bell
10. LP 229 Mambo Bell

Cymbals: Zildjian
A. 12″ K Splash
B. 13″ Closed Hi-hats (K on top, A Mastersound on bottom)
C. 19″ A Custom Projection Crash

Ralph Irizarry also uses Vic Firth sticks.