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In Conversation with Master Timbalero, Ralph Irizarry



Master Timbalero Ralph Irizarry
Master Timbalero Ralph Irizarry

“Latin jazz is one of the few distinct art forms the USA has given the world. Ralph Irizarry and Timbalaye’s new CD give us abundant glimpses of the past, present and future of this genre. It’s a celebration of the group’s 20th anniversary and it offers the listeners more of the unique and fresh interpretations that Timbalaye’s fans have long embraced and have come to expect.” — Oscar Hernández

“For all you Timbalaye fans who waited patiently for another jam, here’s the Timbalaye 20th Anniversary CD. It’s a complete labor of love by everybody involved so I hope you enjoy it as much as we enjoyed recording it.” — Ralph Irizarry

Marcela Joya: Ralph, I was and am pleased to learn Timbalaye is back with its 20th Anniversary album. Before we talk about the group’s return, let’s go back to the beginning of your career. I’m curious to learn how and why you chose the timbales as your primary instrument.

Ralph Irizarry: This is not one of those stories about a famous musician who said, I started when I was three or four years old, like a lot of guys who had parents who were in the music business. Nobody in my family was in the music industry, but my father used to lend money to people, so I remember when I was about eight years old, my father lent money to a guy who was a drug-addict, 25 dollars or something like that, but the guy didn’t have the money to pay him back, so he offered him a set of timbales in exchange for the money. My father thought it was better to get something than nothing, so he accepted them (Laughs).

Somehow, he knew that me and my brothers were always banging on things, like the cover of the radiator, so he gave us the timbales. They had real skins, probably calf skins! They were beautiful, but for us, they were a toy. So we made a pair of sticks from clothes hangers and played the timbales. We destroyed the skins on the first day!! (Laughs)

Seven years later, I was living in Queens, and a neighbor came around with a Mexican conga drum, you know, those cheap Mexican drums that come with two colors and are horrible and said: “Are you Spanish, man? You know how to play congas ’cause I got those and I´m looking for someone to jam.”

I remembered that when I was about thirteen years old I would go to the park and see these guys playing conga and timbales, and my blood would start boiling and I would get nervous and excited. I told the guy there was a set of timbales I used to play with when I was a little boy. I asked my mother for the timbales, and we found them exactly in the same condition we left them years ago. So I bought plastic skins (the ones they use today) and joined my neighbor. I remember I hit the timbale one time, and it was like love at first sight, I felt something I have never felt before. All my skin felt it. I shook. Two days later I went to Manny’s music store on 48th street and bought brand new timbales, sticks, everything… and I haven’t stopped since… that was 45 years ago.

You didn’t begin your career in New York, right? I understand you moved to Puerto Rico for a few years, and you performed with bands like La Terrífica.

I had some gigs in New York before going to La Isla, nothing significant. In 1971, my parents moved back to Puerto Rico. I had never been there before, so I was excited. I got to play with great people like La Terrífica, La Orquesta Mundo, with Enrique Guzmán, but I encountered a problem in Puerto Rico because I am a Nuyorican. In the early 70’s, there was an enormous prejudice towards people who came from New York, maybe because New Yorkers who went to La Isla, thought they were better than Puerto Ricans. So I came back because I couldn’t take it anymore.

You’ve said that you grew as an artist while playing with Ray Barretto. Also, you participated in the amazing album, Ricanstruction (1979) How did that happen?

Ray Barretto - Ricanstruction

I was playing at the Corso Ballroom (a famous venue in Manhattan, once located on 86 Street and 3rd Avenue) when the manager came up to me and said, “Ray Barretto is putting together a new orchestra, and he’s looking for musicians. I told him to come and see you play.” It was a Sunday night, and there was a blizzard, something like fifteen inches of snow on the ground and it was fricking cold! So, I didn’t think Ray would show up.

During the first set, I was so nervous I couldn’t play. From the bandstand you could see the entrance, so knowing Barretto may see me ruined my night. All I could do was look at the door to see if Barretto was coming. I was a mess but, fortunately, the place was empty. You had to be crazy to come out on a night like that. So, after the second set I said to myself: “Good, he’s not going to come.”

So, for the third set I relaxed and played because I stopped focusing on the door. I took a solo on the last tune (I was playing with La Charanga Novedades), and I wasn’t nervous because I wasn’t waiting for Barretto, but after I had finished the solo, I looked at the door, and I saw this big man, shaking the snow off his coat and cleaning his glasses and my heart skipped a beat! Ray Barretto was standing there, and he arrived just in time to listen to my solo.

I almost died. No exaggeration. He came to me and said: “Nice solo kid, it was a nice solo. Come, let’s talk.” Then he told me he was putting together a band and asked me if I would like to join. Oh my God, I couldn’t believe it. Of course, I said yes and he said he would call me. It was the winter of 1976.

Before you ever met Ray you were a serious fan, yes?

Qué qué? I was more than that. Before I started playing timbales, Orestes Vilató was my favorite timbalero, and I used to follow Ray Barretto’s band around like a little puppy dog. I wasn’t even a musician or anything, but I have a record that he signed for me when I was a fan. So for me to go from being a fan to being in Ray’s band was a dream come true.

How did the dream evolve? How was it working with Barretto?

Everything was great. He was a shy guy. He didn’t talk a lot, but he was a wise man. I learned a lot with Ray. He made me a better bandleader; he made me a better musician. Playing and rehearsing with him was like going to school. And I love the fact that he always gave young musicians a chance. He always surrounded himself with young talent.

You left Barretto’s band to be a founding member of Seis del Solar. How did that happen? How did Barretto take the news?

Rubén Blades y Seis del Solar

It was hard. I had to leave Ray to go with Blades, in 1983. We were all going to Boston, and Oscar Hernández was also about to leave the band to go with Blades. So in our way to Boston, Oscar let him know, and Ray was like “Damn, I hate to see you going, but I understand, you got to do what you get to do, man”. And then, in our way back to New York, it’s me. Ray used to sit on the front part of the bus, so I went there slowly, like a little kid, and said: “Ray I get a talk to you. I’m leaving the band.” There was silence and the he said: what do you mean you are leaving the band?, And I was like: “Yeah, I am going with Rubén Blades.” Oh my, God, all hell broke loose… “What the fuck, why does Rubén Blades have to take my musicians? What the hell!” He freaked out, he started yelling, he got crazy (Laughs).

Ray wasn’t doing that well at that time, right?

Right. I knew the salsa world was the singer’s world and Ray used to tell us that the reason he didn’t get the opportunities that Cheo Feliciano, Rubén Blades, Ismael Miranda and many other singers were getting was because he wasn’t a singer. Singers were and had always been the ones that catch people’s attention and set the market. So I knew Rubén Blades had split with Willie Colón, and they were touring the world. They were one of the hottest items in Latin music. I knew that Rubén’s band was going be big and that I was going to be on another level. Also, Blades was putting together a sextet, and it was going to be easier to travel. Rubén was a fan of the Joe Cuba Sextet. He knew what he was doing. Ray Barreto was traveling with twelve people. Blades was going to travel with six, so there were going be more opportunities to travel and work.

Tell me how your relationship with Blades started.

Rubén Blades - Salsa Caliente de New York

Oh, I have a funny story about it. In 1983, Rubén was starting a band, and I was recommended to him by percussionist Eddie Montalvo. So Rubén didn’t want to start a band the conventional way. He wanted to have a series of meetings first; he wanted to talk to the musicians and ask the players how we would build it together. He cared about the musician’s opinions. So we had a meeting where he asked if we wanted to wear uniforms, and how much money we planned to make. He didn’t want a manager.

So the first meeting was in his apartment, on 81st Street and Columbus Circle, near Central Park. He scheduled the meeting around midday. So when we got there, he wasn’t home but the doorman let us in. Everybody went into the living room but me. I started to get a little bit jittery and curious, so I went into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator where I found a six-pack of Cokes. I thought they were for the musicians, so I helped myself to a Coke. Then, there was a huge bag of potato chips on the table, so I took it. Then I saw a small door in the kitchen, which led to Ruben’s bedroom. So I went into his bedroom with my Coke and chips, and there was a remote control on the bed. Nothing was happening, and I was feeling stressed, so I thought it was OK to turn on the TV. Just as I was getting comfortable Rubén came through the door and saw me on his bed with the remote control in my hands. So he looked at me with wide eyes, hit his head and closed the door. Then he went into the living room, and I heard him say, “Who’s the guy sitting on my bed, drinking my coke and eating my potato chips, man?” And Eddie Montalvo says: “That’s your new timbalero, Rubén.” That’s the way I met Rubén Blades. (Laughs). I think that’s why he and I have such a special relationship to this day. We worked together for about fourteen or fifteen years. We went to our last tour two years ago, with Todos Vuelven, which won a Grammy. I was the only timbalero that Seis del Solar ever had.

Which was the most extraordinary record you did with Seis del Solar, and why?

Rubén Blades y Seis del Solar - Buscando América

Well, Buscando America started it for us. The topics of the songs were nothing like “Hey Ven a Bailar Mi Negra”. No. They were about social statements, so we didn’t have to go after dancers; we were not interested in making music para el bailador (for the dancers). Then, we were making a difference. Everybody cares about El bailador, but Rubén Blades was looking for the biggest audience, with songs like “Buscando America” or “Los desaparecidos”.

We were looking to perform around the world. We played in Argentina, where no salsa band had performed for 20 years, after the Tito Rodríguez Orchestra. So Rubén was opening those doors again.

In your opinion, where, in Latin America, did Seis del Solar have the biggest impact?

All over, I think. One of the most important concerts we did was in Santiago de Chile. We played for the International Amnesty, and there were 80 thousand people in the audience, at the Coliseum. It was an incredible experience, but it was also very scary.

When I was walking down the corridors where Pinochet used to torture people, I could hear screams coming out of the walls as if there were still people suffering. It was crazy!! Later on, some person comes to me and says: “Man, did you hear the screams down there?” I told him that I hadn’t said anything because I thought I was going crazy. It was a special night. People were crying, and I cried too when twenty mothers of “Los Desaparecidos” came with the pictures of their loved ones onto the stage, and Rubén took them to dance and sang. That was the only time I remember crying while playing the timbales.

You have a feeling for writing social lyrics too, you composed some raps.

(Laughs) Yes, I did. I used to write songs, and I liked it but I m not a writer, though I could be. Sammy Figueroa and I wrote the rap on the 6th Seis Del Solar CD. Rubén Blades encouraged us to make an instrumental album, and we did two. He paid for the first of two albums, they came out pretty nice. That’s where I got the idea for Timbalaye.

Was Seis del Solar appreciated in the Latin Jazz territory?

Seis del Solar - Decisión

We did a tour with Seis de Solar, the instrumental group, for six thousand people and feeling freaking good. It was incredible to get applause just for the musicians, with no singer on stage. We were finally getting praise and recognition after so many years of practicing.

Rubén Blades was very fair because he always introduced his musicians two or three times a night. But for many singers you were like a piece of furniture, they didn’t even say your name. When I experienced that sensation with Seis del Solar was when I started to think that what I wanted to do was create a Latin Jazz band.

What was your idea of Latin Jazz at that moment?

As I am a timbal player and not a drummer, I knew that the Latin Jazz I wanted to do was going to be about Latin rhythms organized under the structure of jazz and not the other way around, as many groups were doing at the time.

Tito Puente always told me: “There is one thing I have learned by touring the world, and that is that there is a bunch of people who are really curious about our Latin instruments and our Latin rhythms. All over the world, they love our Latin rhythms”. So I knew I had to do something to transform those Latin Rhythms into a universal thing.

But again, I did not want to play instrumental salsa. I wanted the Latin Jazz group to have a pure jazz format. My idea was doing something like what Mongo Santamaría and Willie Bobo did with Cal Tjader’s group, using timbales and congas, no bongos. But I wanted to have pushing arrangements, something like what Irakere was doing. I wanted sophisticated arrangements with a lot of meat for everybody. And I wanted me everywhere. I didn’t want just many entrances with everybody soloing.

Ralph Irizarry & Timbalaye
Ralph Irizarry & Timbalaye

Where does the name, Timbalaye come from?

I like guaguancó records a lot. I remember one day I was listening to Carlos Embale, and he had a tune called A La Timbalaye. So I looked at that word and said to myself “Ha, how interesting, the six first letters spell timbal, the instrument I play, and I like the way it sounds with aye.” So I decided to use it for my band.

Interesting, did you ever figure out what the word means?

Ralph Irizarry and Timbalaye - It's Time

(Laughs) Honestly, yes, but later. I learned from some musicians of the Grupo Folclórico Nacional de Cuba that Timbalaye meant “Party World“. “Timba” means party and “Aye” means “the world.”

In Yoruba?

I don’t know (Laughs) but it sounds good, doesn´t it?

Yes, it does. Did you know who you wanted to work with when you started Timbalaye?

Not exactly. I just knew I wanted to work with some creative musicians. It´s funny. I got some arrangements first, and those arrangements were not so easy to play, so I knew I had to get some capable musicians. So to the first guys I got together, here in my basement, I said something like this: “I have no gigs, and we are going to be rehearsing for at least three months.” Some of them got excited, but three of the guys immediately quit (laughs). Finally, I got great musicians for the first group. I got Luisito Quintero, Rubén Rodríguez, Luis Perdomo, Bobby Franceschini. And I kept those guys in the band for about six years. I recorded three records with the same guys.

Tell me a bit more about the concept.

Ralph Irizarry & Timbalaye

Timbalaye has always had a musical concept. I knew I didn’t want to play only Afro-Cuban rhythms. I knew I didn’t want just to do what Barretto had done. I wanted to fuse different folkloric rhythms with jazz. So I started by experimenting with different Latin American rhythms. I did the chacarera, from Argentina; I’ve done Venezuelan folklore, I’ve done bomba, plena, danzón. Now I’m doing one Villarán, which is folk music from Puerto Rico.

You know those folk structures well.

Let’s say I know enough. Of course, you need to know the musical structures deeply before you dare to mix them with jazz. But I think is easier for Latinos to play jazz than for American jazz musicians to play Latino music (laughs).


I guess it has something to do with the feeling. There is something about being Caribeño that other people can’t improvise. There is an African connection, a particular thing we have that make easier for us to think of music up on the beats. A lot of people that are not Caribeños have a hard time trying to play things that are built this way, upon the beat. Caribbean music is always on the up beats, where you don’t expect it to be, and people who don’t have that African feeling have a hard time understanding it because they can’t feel it.

American jazz and Africa share a connection.

Oh, sure. But there is something about the swing, about el sabor, you know, that flavor that comes in your blood. I’m not saying jazz musicians can’t play Latin music; I’m just saying it’s harder for them.

Why did you decide to call your record label, Best Kept Secret?

Ralph Irizarry and Timbalaye - Best Kept Secret

For a long time, I felt that Timbalaye was a little ahead of its time, and a lot of people didn’t understand what we were trying to do. You know, in 1998, 1999, there were a lot of people that were playing the same kind of Latin jazz that Santamaria and Barretto used to play, just imitating them. So I felt like we were a best-kept secret, and nobody wanted to give us a chance (Laughs).

I started my label because I was doing everything myself. I recorded, mixed, distributed, I was my publicist, I got the photographs, the design, absolutely everything. I think I did a good job with my records, with Son Café, Viejos de la Salsa, and Timbalaye. Sometimes, I’m surprised I didn’t get more work on that side but producing a record is a pain in the ass, so it’s OK that nobody asked me (Laughs).

I guess the feeling of not being understood was one of the reasons the band split up.

We were playing progressive stuff. After going to Cuba and Puerto Rico, we did some European tours, and then things went slowly. Besides that, I was starting to perform with Blades again. So instead of keeping those great musicians I had, to play for 50 bucks every two months, I disbanded the band and let my people do what they had to do.

Ralph Irizarry & Timbalaye – Photo courtesy of Martin Cohen (
Ralph Irizarry & Timbalaye – Photo by Martin Cohen

Twelve years have passed since, Timbalaye is back.

Yes, Timbalaye is playing again. We got fresh new arrangements and compositions from young talent. Percussionist Samuel Torres wrote a song for us. Also, I have Adán Pérez, Dennis Hernández, playing in the band. I’m excited because I got a group of young musicians from New York. Again, following the Barretto’s teaching, I give young talent the opportunity to play with the group, and they keep me young and they keep me going. It is now that I understand Barretto used to do this because we kept him young as well. But the thing is, my new musicians are so young that they never got to see Timbalaye live. I mean, the original Timbalaye. I think this record is going to help us, so people are going to get curious about our other records, Timbalaye, It’s Time and Best Kept Secret

Ralph Irizarry and Timbalaye - 20th Anniversary

Exactly. What sets this new album apart from the others? What makes it special?

It has the same concept, essentially. The same soul. It comes from the same musical concept I talked about before. But it is has a fresher sound and I am an older (more mature) musician in all senses.

Tell me a bit about the tracks. I love the featured track, Gotham Town.

Gotham Town was composed by Samuel Torres. I heard a track of him I loved so I asked him to write something similar for Timbalaye. I’ve always loved Gotham, the series, so maybe he loves it too (laughs). Witch Doctor is the only tune that wasn’t written originally for Timbalaye. It was composed by a guy who died very young and who we all knew. He was the Dominican Martin Arroyo. He was the one that started Los Soneros del Barrio, with Frankie Vásquez. He was the mastermind of that group. So he composed Witch Doctor, and I liked it. We did and arrangement and played to give him an homage.

When and where are we going to be able to hear this 20th Anniversary album?

The official CD release was on October the 5th. And the release party will be held at Subrosa, on October 26th. I am extremely excited about that.

I’m excited to see you playing with Timbalaye again too. Tell me, have you been to Subrosa? Do you think the concept of featuring strictly Latin music is a good idea?

Yeah, I’ve been there. But let’s see how long it last. Latin Jazz is not an easy thing to keep in the market.

How do you see the current Latin Jazz scene?

Confusing, hard. Also, it is difficult for me to judge new bands from the recordings, as they typically sound different on stage. I can say I like Miguel Zenón, Manuel Valera, David Sánchez, Samuel Torres… There is young talent out there. But the problem that I have with a lot of groups is that, when they are going to the recording studio, they try to use the best equipment, and they use the best musicians in the planet, but then, they don’t have a group sound. You know what I’m saying?

Ralph Irizarry & Timbalaye 2015 2 by Martin Cohen

Yes, I get you.

So they don’t sound like a working group, as a unit. They don’t have a voice. And that’s what I try to accomplish with Timbalaye. I think one of the hardest things for a musician to do is to create a sound, so that when people listen to your music they immediately recognize that is you. That’s what all musicians want to accomplish. And I think Timbalaye has accomplished that. And that is because, for Timbalaye, the band that you see on stage is the band that recorded the record. When you record only with great musicians that are mostly bandleaders themselves, then, it is almost impossible to have the group performing.

True. It is hard enough for musicians to gather and practice and harder for players with big names to keep a band together. I am glad last year I got to see many of the musicians you have worked with, at the Fundraiser they organized for you at B. B King’s. It was touching to see them all together (more than 11 bands) playing for you. How do you feel about it? And how is your health?

Well, it was fantastic. I’m cancer free right now. I had a cancer operation in November of 2013, and things are better. I’m still recovering, but now I can work. I am very grateful to all the people who came out to support me because I couldn’t work and couldn’t play, so I couldn’t take care of my family. I was worried, so my friends organized that fundraiser for me. First, I had eight bands that wanted to perform, and then many more bands played for me. Rubén Blades was there, Spanish Harlem was there, Eddie Montalvo was there. A lot of love, you know, I felt loved and blessed.

You have said that your friends have played a significant role in the development of your career and life. I think that’s special because many musicians are more on the lonely side than social.

Oh, yeah, I’m not that kind of solitary musician, thank God. I am a family type of person, and I have lots of good friends. I got out of drugs because of my good friends and I’ve been clean for almost 30 years.

How did you take that step?

Look, it comes to the point where you have to admit that you are no longer using drugs socially. So you get to accept that there is an addiction, and you have to decide for yourself because there are only a few things you can do when you are addicted to drugs: either you die or go to jail. Once you hit your bottom or think of suicide, then you have to make the decision. In my case, I was lucky I had friends who had faced this problem, and they took me to a few meetings, so I was able to identify with other addicts. And thank God I have not relapsed since January 1986.

Ralph Irizarry & Timbalaye 2015 3 by Martin Cohen
Ralph Irizarry & Timbalaye – Photo by Martin Cohen

Ralph, is there a record that transcends your life and continues to impact the music you create now?

Cachao y su Ritmo Caliente - Descargas en Miniatura

If I am to name a record that made me fall in love with music, and especially with Cuban Music, it has to be Cachao’s Descargas in Miniature. That record was responsible for me falling in love with Afro-Cuban music. So, here is a guy, 15 years old, not a musician, who gets a chance to hear a man named Cachao, and then, 20 years later, that same guy is filming a video called Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos, in Miami, with Gloria Estefan and Andy García. I played timbales on that video. Still think about that and can’t believe it. Just to say that my life has been nothing but a bunch of dreams come true moments.

Share with me another one of those moments.

Cachao, again. Look, I ended up playing for Paquito de Rivera’s 50th Anniversary, at The Carnegie Hall. I was playing with a quartet and that quartet was made up by Cachao, Bebo Valdés, Cándido Camero and me. Incredible, right?

I would have loved to have seen that.

I couldn’t believe I was there and I knew it was going to be almost impossible for them to be together again. The guy who was supposed to be there and who would perfectly fit with those three giants was Tito Puente, but he was gone. And Orestes Vilató was busy in California. So I got to play with those three maestros, and that was a real blessing.

You said you are a family type of person. What do you like to do with your family? What do you do when you are home?

I’ve been married for 38 years to a woman from Costa Rica and I have three children, with her and thank God she is not a musician (Laughs). So when I come home from gigs all I hear is, “We have no milk, we need eggs, don’t forget to take out the garbage.” In my house, they don’t care about what I’m doing out there. For them, I am not the timbalero, I’m the husband, the grandfather, so with them I forget all about music and life becomes simpler.

Life is simpler when not thinking about music? Not for me, eh.

Somehow, yeah (laughs). Making music is exhausting. Listening to it too.

Do you go out and listen to live music?

I will be lying to you if I say that I go around and see a lot of bands. Honestly, I barely go out, unless I’m performing. I go out now and then to support some musicians, but I don’t do it that much.

How often do you play your music at home?

This is what happens with my records: I listen to them every day for the first two or three weeks after they are released, but then I put them away and never listen to them again. By the time I finish a record, I already hate the record (laughs).

Which artists are you recently listening to?

I listen mostly to jazz. Everything in jazz. But honestly the only chance I get to listen to music is while I am driving, in my car. That’s the only opportunity I get to be alone, and I only listen to WBGO.

Do you listen to music with your family?

No way! They won’t listen to WBGO (Laughs).

What does your family like you to do with them?

They love when I cook, and I love cooking. Last night I made a peach cobbler, and the night before I made Bacalao a la Vizcaina. Today I will make an apple pie. Cooking is the thing I like the most besides playing the timbales.

Are you reading any books?

Reading? No! But I love Crossword Puzzles. I am obsessed with them. At the age of 61 you have to keep your mind busy and working, so those things stimulate my brain.

Have the three glorious weeks of listening to your latest Timbalaye record passed? Do you hate it already?

(Laughs) Not really.

Good! It’s going to be great to see you playing with Timbalaye again.

YouTube Video – Ralph Irizarry & Timbalaye: Piesotes

Tracks: Gotham Town, Ocean Parkway, Back in Da Hood, Witch Doctor, Timbuleria, Monte Adentro, La 104, P’al Solar.

Personnel: Aidan Pérez: Piano, Alex Apollo Ayala, Israel Cedeo: Bass, Hommy Ramos: Trombone, Anibal Rojas: Tenor Sax, Dennis Hernandez: Trumpet, Roberto Quintero: Congas, Chequere, Guiro, Sebastian Nickoll: Congas, Bongo, Ralph Irizarry: Timbal Kit.

Invited Guests: Rubén Rodriguez: Bass, Bobby Franceschini: Tenor Sax, Jonathan Powell: Trumpet, Eric Chacon: Flute, Christian Nieves: Cuatro, José Eduardo Santana: Guicharo, Willie Ruiz: Güiro, Maracas, Gonzalo Grau, Ernesto Briceno, Roberto Castillo: Palmas.

20th Anniversary is released by Truth Revolution Records and BKS Records.

Marcela Joya is a journalist and fiction writer based in New York. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University and her main research interests are Jazz and Latin Jazz. She has been extensively working on the topics for some years.

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