Of the many – and often chameleonic – ways to describe the music of Dafnis Prieto the word “questing” comes to mind most often and also seems most appropriate, almost poignantly so. His melodies twist and turn, sometimes dangerously out of control, and harmonies become more complex and layered; and his rhythms echo with thunderous drum rolls and ferocious, percussive counter-punches begin with overt Afro-Caribbean accents, but somehow they all find resolution – even if temporarily – melting into pools of other-worldly jibber-jabber. You are left with a sense of satiation, but in a note, a chord and a final beat or drum-roll a portal opens leading to a deep and vast musical topography just waiting to be discovered.
Mr Prieto began 2018 by completing a long and strenuous trek towards realizing a dream of making a big band record. Back to the Sunset might have begun as an attempt or search to write another chapter in his long and illustrious musical career that began in Santa Clara, Cuba, as a boy with a sound waiting to be unlocked, big dreams and an island that could not contain him. By 1999 he had taken a big step of leaving the security of Cuba and chancing his arm in New York City. Big dreams indeed. And Mr Prieto, it seems, wasted no time in making all of them come true by working at each aspect of his career. During this period he worked with the legends of the Jazz scene from Henry Threadgill, Andrew Hill and Don Byron ticking all the empty boxes next to the ones that he’d already, i.e., those that said he’d worked with Chucho Valdés, Bebo Valdés, Jane Bunnett, Chico O’Farrill and Arturo O’Farrill and a slew of others.
All the while Mr Prieto was giving expression to the fire that was burning inside his brain. His writing was unusual and attracted the most important musicians to play his music and aficionados of important music to sit up and take notice. Through it all, he wrote not with a sharpened pencil, but seemingly with the nerve endings of his fingers. He then wielded his drum sticks, brushes and mallets like a pair of sharp machetes, cutting through musical dross and creating paths that no one and no musician had heard of or even experienced before. He wrote music for hour-long discs bearing his name.
But he also composed for a bigger landscape. Perhaps inspired by John Cage – certainly following in his footsteps – Mr Prieto realized music for theatre and dance productions Music for Time in Circles, performed at The Joyce Theater, NYC, Spring 2002, popped into his resume. In 2016 he published his book. In A World of Rhythmic Possibilities Mr Prieto created – yes, created – a veritable ‘library’ of texts on drumming. The year after came a monumental production: music for Taking the Soul for a Walk, for Ballet Contemporaneo de Camaguey, performed at Teatro Avellaneda, Camaguey, Cuba, June 2017 & Teatro Martí, Havana, Cuba, August 2017 under the artistic direction of Pedro Ruiz. But there was a bigger dream looming on his mind’s horizon: one that would lead to music expressed by a big band, paying homage to musicians who inspired and mentored him on his quest to bring the music he “heard” inside his head to fruition.
Busy with the launch of his big band project Back to the Sunset, Mr Prieto took time off to talk about the disc and the many other aspects of his art, that continue to occupy him each day. Here is some of that interview:
On Back to the Sunset
Raul da Gama: Why a Big Band recording now? It seemed like the time just right to embark on this journey?
Dafnis Prieto: I think it is the right time for this album for many reasons. For example, I have now Eric Oberstein co-producing this recording with me and the whole project in general. I also felt good doing the compositions and arrangements for the band, and I got a really strong lineup of musicians that made the music sounding the way it should be. I enjoyed every moment of it. So, I’m very pleased with the result, and I think the recording happened when it needed to happen.
RdG: What in your mind sets this record apart from anything else that you have written and recorded before?
DP: Well, I had not yet done a full album of my music with a big band, and I like to think that there are a lot of fresh ideas and music in this album that it is written and played to its full potential. There is a great deal of textures, melodies, rhythmic ideas, and cultural nuances. But, most importantly to me, I think it sounds like a bigger extension of my music and all of my previous works. In other words, I don’t think I would have been able to make this album 5 or 8 years ago, because all of my previous albums and works have helped this one to be born.
RdG: Did you set out to do anything differently with this recording?
DP: It is always a great journey and adventure to start working on something of any size, but definitely much more on something of this magnitude. On a compositional level, I’m always looking for my sound in many places, and that way I’ll feel (that I) identified with the journey, or journeys that each song might have taken. Every song has its own character, its own compositional strategy, and there is also so much problem solving in the process of composing and arranging, which can lead to other new strategies and ideas within each composition. I like the music to have different textures and elements, but to me the most important part of the music is that it contains a humble and sincere message. I’m not pretending to do more than just humbly writing my ideas, as I have in the past. And it makes me happy when I hear the band playing and I think and feel, that’s it, that’s what I like, that’s what I wanted.
In Conversation with “Drum Poet” Pazcual Villaronga
PAZCUAL VILLARONGA was born and raised in Spanish Harlem, New York. He attended Haaren High School and New York City Community College and graduated from Hunter College, earning a degree in Communications and a Master’s Degree in Bilingual Education.
Known as the “Drum Poet,” Pazcual recites poetry while accompanying himself on the congas (often joined by other musicians), creating an innovative fusion of poetry and discussion that takes his verses to a new level.
Pazcual is the recipient of the Golden and Silver Poet Awards in California and placed third in La Canción Bilingüe – The Bilingual Song Competition in Washington, D.C. He has read poetry at Columbia University, Teachers College, Hunter College, Hostos Community College, Manhattan Community College, and Connecticut’s Housatonic Community College.
His published works include the highly successful “Caracol” (Poems For The Children), “By The Music Inspired,” “Poet,” “Fire From Hell,” “Compendium,” and “Stereotypes and Cycles.” His most recent collection of poems and CD is titled “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens To Fall.” Pazcual’s work has also appeared in “Around the Mulberry Bush – An Anthology,” “Windfall – An Anthology,” and “Fahari.”
Now retired after over three decades of teaching, Pazcual is preparing several collections of poetry and a children’s book and performs with The Lehman College Latin Jazz Ensemble, directed by Victor Rendón.
TOMÁS PEÑA: Welcome, Pazcual! Tell me about the project.
PAZCUAL VILLARONGA: “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall” is my salute to the musicians and their creative souls. Also, to the percussive rhythms and melodies, they share with us each and every time they perform. Also, it is my way of sharing with the world, through poetry, how they inspire me and the power and beauty of their musical creations.
TP: Thank you for sharing an advance copy of the book and CD with me and for taking me on a fascinating bilingual literary and aural journey. Before we delve into the project, I’m curious to know what drew you to poetry and the spoken word.
PV: Growing up, I was shy and introverted. Poetry was my way of expressing myself. When I was in high school, my friend Jose showed my writings to a teacher (Dr. Richstone) and the teacher replied, “There are better things you could do with your time.” Undaunted, my friend showed my writings to another teacher (Mary Lamboss), and she said, “You are the Poet Laureate of Harren High School!” Later, I formed the “Drum Poets” and began reciting poetry with percussion and music.
TP: How did the project come about, and why did you choose this title?
PV: It began with Víctor Rendón’s “Fiesta Percusiva” (2008), where I recited the poems “Soy Chicano” and “In the Pocket.” Shortly after, Victor appeared on José “Joe” Massó’s “Con Salsa!,” who played selections from the album on the air. He encouraged me to “make more music like this.” Shortly after, Víctor asked if I was interested in pursuing the project, and I immediately said, “Yes!” Victor Rendón agreed to produce the record with the following conditions: Trust him implicitly and don’t breathe a word about it to anyone until the project is completed. The rest is history!
The title, “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall,” is inspired by trumpeter John Walsh, who composed the song “On Whatever Day of the Week Saturday Happens to Fall” (the tune appears on Chris Washburne and the Syotos Band’s “Paradise in Trouble”) and whose philosophy is, “On Whatever Day of the Week Saturday Happens to Fall, musicians must answer the call and give their all.” Walsh’s philosophy resonates with me because it applies to poets and creative souls who must be in the moment when the muse appears.
TP: The recording contains a collection of your poems set to music: Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Puerto Rican rhythms, Jazz, and Latin Jazz and features an impressive lineup: Víctor Rendón, Wilson “Chembo” Corniel, Louis Bauzo, Yasuya Kimura, Mike Viñas, Amy Quint Millan and José Luis Armengot. Additional guests include Andrea Brachfeld, Henry Brun, Ariel De La Portilla, and Roman Diaz (see below for specifics). Tell me about the poem, “Right Pocket/Left Pocket.”
PV: My mother was concerned about my dad, who drank excessively and played pool at a local social club. She asked me to check on him and bring him home. When I arrived, my father was intoxicated and staggering. Shortly after, a neighborhood hustler and “aprovechao” (exploiter) named Chano challenged my father to a game of pool. My father immediately asked me, “How much money do you have?” And demanded I give it to him. Then, miraculously, he took a breath and straightened up. After that, it was “right pocket, left pocket!” Long story short, my father and I left the social club fifty dollars richer! When Victor and I arranged the tune, he had just acquired a set of “timbalitos” (9-1/4 and 10-and 1/4 timbales), which have a very distinct sound. If you listen closely, you will hear Victor mimic the sound of the cue ball striking the billiards.
TP: Your words conjure up images. I felt like a fly on the wall! I also enjoyed the poem, “El Chembito,” where percussionist Wilson “Chembo” Corniel masterfully accompanies you.
PV: The poem was born while listening to Chembo’s solo on the tune “Lagos” which appears on Victor Rendon & the Bronx Conexion Latin Jazz Big Band’s “True Flight” (2016). I realized that in Chembo’s hands and in the hands of the masters, you feel and hear the connections between past and present and are privy to a glimpse of the future. Chembo has a way of taking you along for the ride as he time travels between rhythms, feelings, and emotions! His hands never falter, and his ideas are always fresh!
TP: The poem, “I Saw You (Tribute 4 Miles)” talks about a unique experience you shared with trumpeter José Luis Armengot onstage.
PV: Yes, Jose was standing to my right, and he was soloing on the tune “Fragile.” I turned to Jose; he was wearing dark glasses and leaning back like Miles used to, and I saw Miles! At the time, I was not aware that Jose idolized Miles. Later, I read the poem to Jose and I said, “You are Miles!”
TP: Tell me about the poem, “In the Pocket.”
PV: The poem is inspired by Omar Castaños, who said, “Some musicians express themselves and don’t say a lot. But every once in a while, you will find an artist who sits in the pocket, and everything is pushed away. I saw it happen when the masterful Luis Bauzo took a solo at “Gonzalez y Gonzalez” (NYC) in front of a packed house and stopped the room. The poem was born at that moment!
TP: The poems mentioned earlier are examples of what listeners and readers can expect. There is much more to savor! The CD and book will be released on December 1, 2022. Is there a CD Release Party or a live performance in the works?
PV: We have yet to set a specific date, but, yes, it is in the works.
TP: “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall” will be available at: http://amazon.com via https://cdbaby.com, and all the major digital streaming, and download sites (iTunes, Spotify, etc.). Also, readers can listen to and download the CD on Pazcual Villaronga’s Website: http://conceptovillapaz.com.
TP: Closing thoughts?
PV: If I have touched you with one word, phrase, or poem, I have done my job as a poet!
TP: Indeed, you have! “On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall” recalls the writings of the Nuyorican poet and playwright Pedro Pietri, playwright Tato Laviera, activist, journalist, media personality Felipe Luciano, and Latina poet Sandra Maria Estevez, among others. Rarely has the spoken word, Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Puerto Rican rhythms, and Latin Jazz come together as organically and beautifully as it does on this exciting and innovative project. Highly recommended!
1. Drummers Prayer
2. By the Music Inspired
3. In the Pocket
4. What Do You Do?
5. El Chembito
6. How Many of Us Listen?
7. Bongo Habla Otra Vez
8. Que No Se Te Olvides
9. Right Pocket/Left Pocket
10. On Whatever Day Saturday Happens to Fall
11. I Saw You (Tribute 4 Miles)
12. Alma Jibarita
13. Puerto Rican Trilogy
14. Puerto Rican Trilogy
15. Puerto Rican Trilogy
16. Speak Easy
17. Soul Riffs
18. Entendian Voz
19. Another Night in Tunisia
20. En Las Manos de Los Maestros
21. Afro, Is That You?
22. Now and Then
THE NEW DRUM POETS
Pazcual Villaronga – Executive Producer, Poetic Voz, Conga and Shekeré
Víctor Rendón – Producer, Drum Set, Timbales, Pailitas, Shekeré, Batá (Okonkolo), Coro
Wilson “Chembo” Corniel – Congas, Batá (Itótele), Guataca, Coro
Louis Bauzo – Bongos, Congas, Barril (Primo), Batá (Iyá), Bonkó Enchemiyá, Güícharo Puertorriqueño, Coro
Yasuya Kimura – Congas, Bongos, 1st and 2nd Cajón, Maraca, Coro
Michael Viñas– Bass
Amy Quint Millan – Piano, Coro
José Luis Armengot – Trumpet
- Andrea Brachfeld – Flute
- Henry Brun – Conga, Shaker
- Ariel de la Portilla Acoustic Bass
- Roman Diaz (Batá and Various Percussion)
- Diego Lopez (Batá and Various Percussion)
- Allan Molnar First Marimba
- Yumi Suehiro Second Marimba
LEFT TO RIGHT: Pazcual Villaronga, Yasuyo Kimura, Louis Bauzo, Víctor Rendón, Wilson “Chembo” Corniel.
POETRY BY PAZCUAL VILLARONGA
- COMPENDIUM (1991)
- POETRY (1995)
- BY THE MUSIC INSPIRED (2002)
- FIRE FROM HELL (2004)
- CARACOL – P0EMS FOR CHILDREN (2009)
- ON WHATEVER DAY SATURDAY HAPPENS TO FALL (2022)
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