January 13, 1998, El Negro is at Gonzalez y Gonzalez, in Greenwich Village, New York, New York. (Stop by on any Wed night, and you can catch some of the hottest Latin players around... FREE!) Tonight, El Negro talks with great friend and peer, Robby Ameen. Currently working with Paul Simon in his upcoming Broadway play, Robby is best known for his innovative work with Dave Valentin and Ruben Blades. His "Sure, there's room for me in there!" approach, creating parts for full drumset in Latin music, introduced a new style of drumming now known as Latin-Funk. Be sure to check out Robby's video (with Lincoln Goines), Funkifying The Clave! Also, Ralph Irizarry, timbale player with Ruben Blades, stops by the table to make a few comments...
Editor's note: If you have never experienced listening to and watching several Latin (or ANY type of) drummers / percussionists exchanging thoughts on music... I highly recommend this encounter to you! In editing the several hours of this transcript, I have tried my best to keep the flavor... the friendship and the respect, the fire and the passion, the humility and the egos, the heat and the laughter. They talk over each other and sometimes get sidetracked. In doing so, it's definitely NOT grammatically correct...so don't show this to your English teacher! --Pam
ps -- To really get into this interview, turn on your favorite Salsa CD - REALLY LOUD! Sorry, you'll have to add your own hand gestures, arm waving, and table drumming!
(Many words in Spanish)
Negro - We have to do this in English! When was the first you ever played?
Robby - The first I ever played... I was about 8 or 9 and we had an assignment in school. We were studying Native American Indians and we had a choice of making something. So I made a drum from the rubber inner tube of a tire, a shoelace and a coffee can. Actually, it was like a bucket and chopsticks! I got into playing a couple of these drums and then I used a pie pan for a snare drum. I remember, seriously, I would practice! I would practice for hours and I would play like I had a little drumset! I had about 5 of them, with a pie pan as a snare.
Negro - Are you the first one in your family with a musical...
Robby - Nobody in my family plays anything, never played anything.
Negro - So you are the family violator!
Robby - Yeah! (laughs) My sister played for a while. She played a medieval instrument, the viola de gamba. But she was terrible! And her teacher told her that she had terrible time!
Negro - (Laughing) Don't be cruel!
Robby - Her teacher told her she had terrible time and that she should practice with a metronome. So she would practice with a metronome and I would walk by her room and listen. And what she was playing had nothing to do with the metronome! And (laughing) I would say "Listen to the metronome!" and she would say "No, I'm playing with a metronome so that my time will be better!" Had nothing to do... she would just turn it on, any tempo, and just keep playing the way she always played.
Then I got a drumset. I had to carry the ring in a wedding for a cousin of mine. The guy that was getting married, when he was a kid, his parents bought him a drumset and he never used it. So when I went to the house for the wedding, I started playing the drumset and they said "When you finish the wedding, take it home." and the same...
Negro - Oh No!
Robby - Yeah! And the same guy told me a couple of years later, after I'd been playing seriously... He said "By the time you go professional, it's going to be all computers." and I laughed! And he was right. That was like in 1970 (Laughs)
Negro - Smart people around you. (Laughing)
Robby - That's why he stopped playing! (Laughing)
Negro - What happened after that?
Robby - I played on my own for a few years. Then I went to a piano teacher who used to play drums and he would write stuff for the drumset. We played Jazz tunes. He'd play piano and I'd play drums. It was a good way of learning 'cause he was a drummer. But it wasn't like DRUM drum lessons. And then I studied with Ed Blackwell. That was like in high school.
Negro - And after that...
Robby - And then I studied some in college with Fred Hinger, who was the timpanist with the Metropolitan Opera.
Negro - What kind of drums did you have at that time?
Robby - I had that drumset, that those people gave me, for a long time and then...
Negro - You remember what kind?
Robby - It was one of those Mercury / Mattel... some damn brand that nobody ever heard of. I remember I took off the finish and I just played them... I made them like wood and I spray painted a lacquer on them because the finish was so ugly.
Negro - So all this time you were living in New Haven?
Robby - In New Haven, yeah. But I used to come to New York a lot, even when I was like 9 or 10. I was really lucky 'cause I used to go and hear people... even when I was 12, 13, I could go hear Elvin Jones playing somewhere or Billy Higgins playing somewhere. I used to come in on weekends a lot, then stay with Sammy Figueroa, who I met at the time. And then basically, yeah, I started playing professionally.
Negro - Then you moved to New York?
Robby - Yeah, I moved to NY. I was probably about 20, 21
Negro - Were you starting... or already playing?
Robby - I was already playing. I was playing in New Haven and I would sometimes play with bands that would play in New York. You know, I would come to NY to play sometimes, but very little. When I first came to NY, after I had finished college, I was playing in the street in a Bebop band. We had a 5-pc band. We would play at 12 o'clock noon at, like, Penn Station. Then we would move our equipment up to Columbus Circle / 57th St, play for the rush hour crowd and then we'd go down and play for the Theater crowd around Broadway around 7 o'clock. And if we were really into it, we'd hang out... we'd wait for the theater to let out and play at 11 o'clock. So we were out there for hours and hours a day. We would make about $60 - $70 for a 5-pc band and that was in, like, 1980, 1981.
Negro - So you believe that was a learning process on your musical life?
Robby - It was! Very! 'Cause we were playing Bebop all day long and here I was in New York and I didn't really know anybody. Some of the guys that were in the band were really good. There was a sax player, he used to play with Charles Mingus and a bunch of different people. One day, I was playing, it was at Columbus Circle, and a guy came by on a bicycle and he looked like a messenger. And the sax player, this guy that I was playing with, said "Hey, let him sit in." And the guy sat in and he completely kicked my ass! He blew me away! I said, "My god, the messengers play like that!" It was Adam Nussbaum!
Negro - Wow! Yeah?
Robby - But at the time, I thought... I said, "Holy shit! A messenger guy who was riding a bicycle jumps off the bike and gets on the drums and sounds like that! I don't..."
Negro - So what happened after that? (More Spanish Merry Christmas....Toca....Goodnight...) Did you study with somebody formally at that time or no?
Robby - Back when I moved to New York? No, by then I wasn't studying anymore.
Negro - You were, like, by your own, learning on the street?
Robby - The last guy I really studied with was Eddie Blackwell and then after that with Fred Hinger. When I was in college, I studied. But that was classical. But after that, no. I stopped studying with people when I was probably, like, 18.
Negro - So, wow! You came to New York, playing on the streets with all these guys!
Robby - Yes, I just basically wanted to get just to start playing.
Negro - What happened after that?
Robby - I was playing with a band and Mauricio Smith heard me. And he sent me to Mexico for 3 months where I played with a band there, a New York band. And when I got back, he started calling me for gigs. Mauricio's the guy that's helped a lot of people that didn't have any kind of name, but that he liked. He's done that for years. And then he started calling me for jingles, and I was shocked. Because I had hardly played in a club or anything in New York and I was doing jingles! And then I thought, "Gee, This is unbelievable! You can play for years and years and never get called for a jingle." And after a while, I mean, I wasn't... I was doing some... not tons of them, but I realized I wasn't getting heard anywhere. I was just doing the same, seeing the same guys...so I decided to put a band together and...
Negro - Your own band?
Robby - Right. And I heard Lincoln Goines, who I liked a lot. And at the time he was playing with Tania Maria and also with Dave Valentin. And I just approached him, out of the blue, if he wanted to put a band together and he said, "Yeah, I'll try it." So we got together and played and we hit it off. It was like Latin-Jazz with some vocals. We had a lot of very good musicians, Robin Eubanks played in the band.
Negro - How old were you at that time?
Robby - About 21, 22
Negro - And you already had the Latin music down and, I mean...
Robby - Well, I was already... I was listening... I basically started listening to... I was a Bebop and Jazz player when I was really young because I had listened to... I had a teacher, even in elementary school, who gave me the Miles records and a Coltrane record and I heard this for like...
Negro - Then studied with Ed Blackwell.
Robby - Right. And I always listened to Funk and Rock anyway 'cause I was... When you grow up, you know, that's what people are playing and listening to. But I had always listened to Latin music on the side 'cause I'd always been around percussionists like Bill Fitch in New Haven and so forth. So I was always listening to Salsa, from even 14, 12, 13, those years. But with Lincoln, we started kind of trying to develop a style that happened kind of spontaneously. 'Cause we would play together and there wouldn't be a percussionist, so I would play percussion rhythms on the drums and mix them in with Funk or whatever. And then he would fill in other percussion patterns on the bass. And you know, I think it formed the basis for this band that we had for awhile.
Negro - So how old were you when you started playing your groove?
Robby - Then after that band? Let me see...
Negro - No, no. My question, basically... so, definitely, you were - are - the pioneer of the mix of Funk and Latin music. I really consider that you are the pioneer on that thing. So when you were 21, you were already thinking that way?
Robby - That's right.
Negro - That you wanted to do a mix. You knew that you already have the Latin thing for Funk.
Robby - That's right. Yeah, I started just experimenting... I know the first time I heard a songo was actually Batacumbele with Ignacio and that really interested me because that was one of the first times I heard drums in a Latin group. 'Cause before that, I used to practice to Salsa records, where there were no drums.
Negro - What was that? Like '81, '82?
Robby - Right. Exactly. Like about the time I came...
Negro - So you had this group with Lincoln...
Robby - Then he invited Dave Valentin down and Dave liked the band. And he said "I'm going to call you. I'm going to change my band and I'm going to add you on drums." I didn't think he would call but he called and that was the first record I did with Dave Valentin, Kalahari. And a lot of the stuff that we did, Lincoln and I already had a strong rapport, so a lot of the rhythms we did were already, kind of like... We played together, and so...
Negro - That was the time we met...
Robby - That was when I met you and... Because that record had just come out and then we went to Cuba to the Jazz Festival and that's right when ... that was the first year that you... that Gonzalo was at the Jazz Festival. I think it was '85. '84, something like that.
Negro - And you already had your own sound, your own approach to the...
Robby - By then, I was... Yeah, I was always playing some cowbells on the drumset and... But it was more in a, Latin Jazz, Latin Funk, kind of thing. It wasn't really popular music. It wasn't 'til Ruben Blades that it got more like popular music.
Negro - Mainstream. What they call mainstream.
Robby - Right, right.
Negro - So you go to do Ruben Blades right after that. After you did, like, 2 or 3 records.
Robby - With Dave, right. Right. 'Bout 2 records with Dave and then Ruben wanted to put drums on his second record with Seis del Solar. Except for the one tune, his first record with Seis del Solar didn't have drums. But, anyway, he had a guy from Panama played on that tune. On a Reggae tune, but the band didn't have drums.
Negro - That's probably the biggest place that I want to talk to you about.
(Here there is much talking over each other... Robby - Ok Negro - How... Robby - Ok Here, here... Negro - Ok, go... Robby - No, No... Negro - No, No... you go...)
Robby - No, No... Bueno, Bueno... No, 'cause Ruben... He wanted to put drums on at least one tune that Oscar Hernandez had done, an arrangement of Cuentas del Alma, and I was at the rehearsals. Then they put me on most of the record! Ruben always likes to say, "You know, we invited him for one tune, and he stayed for 10 years!" So that was kind of what happened.
Negro - No. I mean that I really believe that you are the... (I don't know how to say this in English...). I believe that you were the one who brought the drums into the Latin music... to the Funk approach...
Ralph - The innovator!
Negro - Yeah! You know that... Right! That's the word! You know what I mean? You weren't the... I mean... Where do you think that comes from? Where do you think that mix comes from? Because at that time, I mean, for example, in Cuban music, Changito plays drums with los Van Van in the '60's and '70's and then he quit. That was the main band in Cuba, playing drums totally in a different way.
Robby - Right.
Negro - How you approach that... later, you know what I mean? I think the Cuban approach was definitely never close at all with Funk, or with other styles, that you brought in at that time.
Robby - Well, one of the things that... I think the way I play... When I played with a band like Dave Valentin, there was no percussionist in the band.
Negro - Right.
Robby - And he always used percussion, so I was covering a lot of percussion on the drums. And I wasn't necessarily playing the exact... like just applying the bongo cero part, the timbalero part and then playing the drums. What I really was doing was implying a lot of the rhythms, and still making it sound like a drum player. Like you'd play... You're still playing the basic snare drum, bass drum, hihat, but you still have cowbells in there. So that was implying the rhythm. But when I started to play with Ruben, it was a lot different because I had a timbalero in the band, Ralph Irizarry . And it's sort of funny, because I ended up playing very different with Ruben, in a way, than with Dave. Because with Dave, there was no other percussion. And, with Ruben, Ralphie ended up also playing differently. Before I joined the band, Ralphie used to use a snare drum and a bass drum. And so, Ralphie was one of the first timbale players that, because there wasn't a drummer, would use a bass drum and a snare drum and so forth with the basic timbale setup. In New York Salsa, you didn't really see that very much. Just like you didn't see a drumset player in New York Salsa. So when we got together with Ruben, we had to start thinking about how we were going to fit the drums into a full rhythm section... Bongo cero, timbalero, congas and then drums.
Negro - and Bongos on top...
Robby - All of them... it was always... yeah
Negro - Full rhythm section on top.
Robby - It was four guys. So, for instance with the timbale, Ralphie could play the double bell, of course, so he could play the bongo bell and the timbale bell. But there's a bongocero, so he's not going to do that.
Negro - Ok. Right.
Robby - But then, you figure, I could play the cascara, but there's a timbalero, he's playing cascara. So then what am I going to play? So we came up with different... I think that was where that woodblock with the hihat pattern came about. Because, since Ralphie had me in the band on some of the tunes, a lot of this came about with tunes that were still basically Salsa tunes. They weren't like "Cuentas" which were like a hybrid, a mix of tunes. Or like "Pedro Navaja", those kinds of tunes... These were like Salsa tunes. So since Ralphie said, "Look, I got the drummer, I'm not going to play..." Ralphie might have played, say, the clave with the left hand on the woodblock. But since I had to find something to play, I played clave. But then I had to do something with the hihat and the snare and the kick, so it kinda came about.
Negro - Yeah. But sometimes when you hear Ruben's band, I mean the old Ruben's band that I saw with you guys in Rome, you were playing like Funk patterns. But they were, how you can say in English, that they were totally a... When I saw you with Ruben, you were playing rhythms that were your own creation. It wasn't... They weren't related to Funk...
Robby - Oh ok
Negro - At the same time, they were...
Robby - Right, cascara
Negro - related with what Ralphie was playing, what Bobby Allende was playing, you know, the whole Rhythm section. You know what I mean? You were, you were... I definitely believe that you are the guys that brought the Funk into Latin music. You guys, you guys...
Ralph - You know what... can I just say something?
Negro - Whatever is happening, for example, in Cuba now...
Robby - No, no, no.
Negro - It's true, it's true. Whatever is happening in Cuba now, like the Charanga Habanera or this or that or that is coming from there. You know, what you guys did was a statement. Was a ...
Ralph - What we did was put the backbeats on there and the cascara, the bell rides were always things that we had to work out, the backbeat...
Robby - Where the snare would go...
Ralph - And who was going to do the bell and who was going to do the ...
Robby - Exactly, exactly
Ralph - And he took the time to figure out "Well, I'll put the backbeat here, when you're playing the clave. When you're playing the cascara, I'll play the clave with the hihat. When I'm playing this, then you play..." So he had to figure it out.
Negro - Yes, yes, yes! That's the thing that he created!
Ralph - "What do I do when I can't do cascara. When I can't do..."
Negro - That's his thing that he created. He create the drums with the full rhythm section. The thing with the more funky... In a Funk... That he was taking the Latin rhythm section into a Funk role.
Robby - See, especially on... With Ruben, sometimes, we would do a three hour concert. We'd include songs from his whole career. The majority of which didn't have drums, so I had to... I wanted to justify... I was playing and I wanted to do something. And one thing in any Latin, Afro-Cuban music, nobody doubles. See, if you double the same thing, then it doesn't make much sense. And it's already so full.
Negro - Right. But we're talking about before Latin music had any relation to Funk.
Robby - Ok But that's what I'm going to get to. Yeah, but the reason it came about...
Negro - But before that, it was no relation to Funk whatsoever!
Robby - No. That's true. But the way we got there...
Negro - So you came with that thing, it was like a bridge in between Funk and Latin music. It was the first time that was... Was a marriage! The first time that these two kinds of music were able to be married and be together.
Robby - Ok But if.. a lot of... a lot was because... some of it comes from... a lot of it came from Ralphie saying it, and almost me staying out of the way, but playing in the holes. But justifying the fact that I'm up on the stage, playing all the same time. 'Cause I didn't want to just... I mean, there was one time when we first started to get together, Ralphie said "Why don't you play the guiro with the right hand and come up with a way to mount the guiro and play the left hand like a songo-type of thing." But I never got around to doing that. But, basically, I wanted to justify my presence there. So it was a lot of... What happened was finding the big note, for instance, on the snare drum. Because even though there's not a 2 & 4 in Salsa, there is still some big notes on the snare. You know, at the time, I thought what I found... I mean, you could put the snare drum wherever you want. But I'm saying, consistently, a lot of times, I would put the snare on the 2 side of the clave, for instance, while I'm playing the clave on the quarters. I would play like a songo kind of a thing, but he had the bongo player playing the bell, Ralphie's playing a songo thing between a lot of different bells and then I would still have my bell. But I would be playing in the holes, kind of... Or maybe 2 & 4 on a cowbell, reinforcing, so the backbeat of the 2 & 4 was on the bell so it didn't interfere with the clave. And then the snare would be, maybe, on the and of 2, or whatever. You know what I'm saying? Finding holes to play in... We'd try to work out things with between whatever Eddie Montalvo and the other guys were playing.
Negro - But I really believe that you guys were the start of what is happening in Cuba now. You, the Ruben Blades band with you, were the starting of all of the mix of the Latin Funk.
Robby - You see, one thing that happened is that, on the records, it was a lot more controlled than live. In Cuba, it's a lot looser and more freer because people basically... They still have certain things that everybody plays.
Negro - I don't know, Robby. I saw you guys in Rome.
Robby - No, but that was live! That's what I'm saying. Live! Live, we used to... we would do a lot of things that we wouldn't...
Negro - There was no musically international Salsa band!
Robby - Right. Even in the studio, Ruben would get... Because Ruben is very traditional in a way, musically, even though he did a lot to open up Salsa and so forth. But, he was always a little afraid of the bass drum... a little... he never wanted the bass drum way up front, so I used to sneak it in and play. Until, live, I would play whatever, you know. Then I could really... but on the records, I remember, the records were much more conservative than live. But for everybody... For the timbales, for everything, on the records, we basically just played much straighter than we played live.
Negro - How long you play with Ruben for?
Robby - From, ahhh...
Ralph - About 11 years.
Robby - Well, yeah. How long you play with him?
Ralph - About 13 years.
Robby - Yeah. So about 11 years, yeah. A really long time.
Negro - How many records you did with him?
Robby - I don't know. We did about 8 or 9 records. It's like, almost a record a year, pretty much.
Ralph - The important thing about Robby, as a drummer, which in relation to all drummers, is that Robby never said "I'm gonna get up and not play on this tune." He would spend whatever time it was to invent on a tune that everybody would say, "But, Robby. We can't do drums on this." He would take the time out, but you would never see Robby get up from the drumset on any tune. Out of 25 tunes of Ruben Blades, he was the only guy that had the balls... that would say "I'm going to play on every single tune, even if I have to invent something to play." Where all the other bands, the drummers would accept that "Ok, this is not a tune for a drummer." and they would not play. Robby played on every single tune that we had because...
Negro - He created the part...
Ralph - He would create and that's where the creation came. When he would say "No, I'm going to play on this tune", even though everybody would say... He would go against everybody and say "No, I'll find something to play, but I'm not going to get up from the kit. I'm going to play. There's going to be drums on every tune." I think that was what was more important than everything else. You didn't see a drummer leaving the stage, coming back. He played on every tune. Tunes where he would have to convince us that he could stay. Because we would say "No, this tune..."
Robby - "This already sounds fine without the drums." That's the thing. In other words, these guys... Now, everybody is playing!
Negro - I mean, besides that, you brought into that band and into world-wide music the using of the drumset with a full percussion rhythm. You know what I mean? With a bongo, a timbale, and a conga and you were there and those parts you create definitely brought that music, Latin music or Cuban music or whatever we want to call it, closer to Funk. You know what I mean?
Robby - But they had to be parts, because they had to add something first of all. Because the easy thing would have been to put a backbeat on everything and then it would have been a piece of shit. I mean, not to say... I'm saying, for instance, the Iahia Allstars would do a concert in Madison Square Garden. And they would call Billy Cobham or somebody and he'd play over it and it'd be great! But, like Ralphie is saying, it would be for one tune, or for two tunes, and then that's fine. But to be something like organically involved...
Negro - In the whole concert.
Robby - Right. But, organically, in a sense that it's already organic with what the percussion sections got going. So to come up to do something on top of that, it better be worthwhile or it's not worth... you know? Its gotta add to it, but not get in the way. It can only add onto, but it can't get in the way and shock. You know, between...
Negro - As a whole.
Robby - Right. So there were different parts, you know, depending upon the rhythms that... There was a Bomba, or if it was a guaguanco... 'cause the good thing about Ruben was that he would play everything. There would be 6/8's, there would be guaguanco's, There would be songos. I mean, all the rhythms were there, but a lot of them didn't need the drums, 'cause they didn't involve the drums. It's like, even the songo, the way Ralphie plays songo on the timbales, you don't need the drummer. Even though the songo originally was supposed to be the drums. But to find something to play on the drumset... And the other thing, this was in a Pop context, not Latin-Jazz. It has elements of Jazz, where you can get loose. But it's a lot different when you're playing behind a singer and you're playing Dance type music...
Negro - A Pop, a Latin-Pop gig.
Robby - Right. So it had to be alot stronger, in the sense that it had to be more... This Is What It Is.
Negro - Pocket
Robby - Right. And not just like if you're playing in a Latin-Jazz, you can imply anything you want. You can go... a little bell here and then go... But with this, it's got to be Lay The Law Down, because there's 20,000 people out there and it's not about...
Negro - And at the same time, you were doing Dave Valentin.
Robby - And, you know, freelancing. I had the pleasure to work with Dizzy Gillespie on a couple of recordings. I also worked a lot with a guy named Kip Hanrahan, who I've done a lot of records with over the years. It was also a similar type thing. The drums becoming a bridge between percussion and Jazz. More Jazz in the sense of Kip, because Kip is a guy that would use three percussionists, also. Guys like Giovanni Hidalgo, Milton Cardona, Richie Flores, and then he'd use usually 2 drums and 2 bass players. So, a lot of the times, I was in this role of trying to be a bridge between whole different things. And I know we did some stuff with Smitty Smith, for instance. We did some stuff with Ignacio Berroa. And then with you, too! Those were always real interesting.
Negro - You started playing with Dave, then you were playing with Ruben. The stuff you were learning with Ralphie... Did you use those on Dave's gigs? 'Cause you were alone. You have no percussion player.
Robby - Yeah, for me it worked both ways. Because with Dave, of course, I played more. More cowbells, more, you know. With Ruben, I was in the holes and so forth. But I realized that in Afro-Cuban music, any one rhythm has lasted all these years. But then, if we talk about... forget about Bata rhythms or about Rumba, but if we just talk about even basic Salsa rhythms, you know, cascara, the bongo bell ride, the masacote, the tumbao, you know. They sound best played together. But they also sound good played alone. That's how strong they are as a rhythm. I mean, you can play the cascara and not have a congera and it still sounds good. You can play congas without the cascare, you know. And the rhythms that I came up with Ruben, I realized... I finally realized were strong, when I was able to play them without the percussionist. And when I would go into another situation, I would find that I would apply these rhythms and it would still work, you know. Obviously I had more freedom with the, with the... because I had more to... or I would, maybe, I would be on the...
Negro - You were covering the basic part
Robby - Right! Right. And then, or vice versa, when the basic part wasn't being covered, then I had found... Because then I could cover the basic part, which I never got to do with the.. Oh, you know!
Negro - So for all these years, you were with Ruben and Dave. What happened after? That was 11 years...
Robby - Then there was a while with a lot more Pop. Sort of Rock. People would want to get involved with the Latin... I mean, I did David Byrne, for instance.
Negro - Wow!
Robby - I mean, very little on the record. Or also Eddie Palmieri, when he hadn't used the drums in a long time, he would call me for stuff. And another singer Kirsta McCall, a big British Pop singer, with Steve Lillywhite, and I would get called for those things 'cause they'd say "This is the guy who can play Rock and mix up Latin..." and so forth. And the most recent example of that, is the Paul Simon thing. 'Cause he's been doing that for like seven years now. Trying to write in that area, and there's different approaches. Because there's the real simple approach and then there's the busy approach. And I think you have to be able to play busy to know how to play simple. There's a lot of people who only know how to play simple and they sound like the greatest in the world. But a lot of Afro-Cuban work is... I think you really have to be able to know what's going on everywhere, before you can extract something.
Negro - That's what you're doing now. Robby, let me ask you one last question. How you can always work for somebody, you know? For an artist... for soloists. How you can always make everybody know that it's your own sound... or whoever's in the studio?
Robby - That is something that I think is hard to do. I think that it's a... last night, I saw an interview with Paco De Lucia and he was talking about, of course, one of the oldest, strongest traditions in the world, the Flamenco tradition. And he learned in the school of his father, that style of playing the Flamenco guitar, and one day he went, when he was a kid, to see the guitarist Savicas, who was another type of school of Flamenco master. And he played for Savicas and Savicas said "You have to stop playing like the schools of Flamenco and come up with your own." And he said he never understood how he did that. He said he just realized that from that day on, he wasn't going to play like his father and he hadn't learned the style of Savicas', so he was gonna play his own. But I think that that comes from... I don't know where that comes from! I know that, for me, I really studied...
Negro - I mean, when you were starting to play Latin music.
Robby - Right.
Negro - Did you ever think about mixing Funk. I mean, was it a conscious thing to know...
Robby - Yeah, but this is the thing...
Negro - Or is it something that came out...
Robby - There's more, 'cause this is the thing. As a drummer, I emulated... I idolized lots of drummers, you know, from Steve Gadd to Elvin Jones to Steve Jordan. And I would practice to Yogi Horton. I would practice to the record and transcribe what they played, or play along, whatever. And just play note for note, 'cause I loved them so much and I wanted to play just like they played! At least, for that moment when I'm playing along to that record and just for the joy of guys that you respect and love so much. And just play, note for note, and I think that's the best way to learn. You know? If you stop there, you're still gonna be happy, because just to get to that level where maybe you can play a little bit like one of those guys, you feel great. But then there comes a point where, obviously, what's the point of your existence then if the most you can hope to... to touch, or get close to one of these guys or whatever. And that's what I think that you have to find.
Negro - Your sound.
Robby - You know when it comes to Latin music, it was different. Because with Latin music, there were no drummers...
Negro - You really believe you were a product of your life. The music that influenced...
Robby - Right. But the Latin... I had no influences, as far as drummers in Latin. Because the only one that I heard... very few... Changuito on drums, I didn't hear until much later. On drums... because when I heard Changuito live for the first time he was playing timbales, you know. Ignacio, of course, I heard. Steve Berrios... I heard guys... You, of course, I heard. But you, for me... When I first heard you, you had already gone into a zone that was so much your own that it wasn't something that I could put my finger on. If you listen to the rhythms that you were playing, they were already new rhythms. They respected the traditions, but they were already something new. Even though they were... For instance, you would play cascara with your left hand at the time and play, maybe, quarter notes with your right.
Negro - We're talking about you!
Robby - No, but I'm saying... But as far as guys... But I'm saying, guys... You already had your own style when I first heard you...
Negro - Yeah and when I first heard you, you had your own style, too. The first time I heard you was with Dave in...
Robby - Right, right, right!
Negro - In the Cuban Festival in '84.
Robby - Right, right, right.
Negro - And you had already a style. Somebody who had a lot more knowledge about our music, for example. Like from Steve Gadd. You know what I mean? It was the same you know. It was the same way you were far ahead from what we were used to listening to in Cuba, you know?
Robby - If a drummer was playing...
Negro - Latin music. A drummer playing Latin music.
Robby - Right, right, right.
Negro - You know what I mean?
Robby - Yeah!
Negro - And we heard you in Cuba. We know that you know Steve Gadd, that you know another million things that you brought into Latin music...
Robby - Then, I think, it's like what you say. That we're all products of what we listen to and what we grew up with. With listening. I mean, I think if you grew up in the Black Church, for instance, and you're musically inclined, you know, one day or another you're probably going to be able to sing. If you grew up listening to a lot of stuff from a certain...
Negro - Yeah, I imitate. Yes, but, whatever is happening in Cuban music today... You're a big part of. 'Cause I'm more than sure I've never heard that before. And I believe that any Cuban band that now sounds Funky has to say "Thanks Robby Ameen!" Oh yeah! And it's the truth, you know. He was the pioneer! He mixed the Funk and Latin music!
Robby - I know that one thing is that a lot of, for instance, I say, as far as drummers... When I listened to drummers, I didn't listen to Latin. I didn't listen to Latin drummers outside of the fact that there weren't... There were... Enrique Pla was around, of course. I wasn't that knowledgeable at that time of guys from other generations, like Walfredo Reyes and the Cabaret, Afro-Cuban drummers. As influences, my drummers, for instance, were the same as a lot of guys. Like Steve Gadd and so forth. But the other stuff, I was listening to... I used to play along to all these records and not just play along. I used to jam with bands, bands in New Haven, little Latin bands and I'd come and I'd have the drums...
Negro - Tell me about the goal. What's the goal?
Robby - Oh. My goal, now? Really the same. What I had 5 years ago, 10 years ago... Is to do what I'm doing, but more of it. That's always what I... I don't have any specific... Like, I'd like to get into composing more, writing more... In a way, that would be nice. But I know there are a lot of people that do it a lot better than I do it and I'm not gonna, you know... I'd rather play other people's compositions, you know what I'm saying? I'm not going to say "I'm a great writer." I'm going to learn how to write. I just want to do more of what I'm doing, you know. I really enjoy playing lots of different kinds of music, too. I mean, the Latin, Afro-Cuban music is a big part of my style. I really enjoy playing.
Negro - Let me ask you a question, Robby. Do you feel that you were probably, in the decade of the '80's, the most influential drummer in Latin music? That you were the drummer that created more Latin context?
Robby - The funny thing was, now that we're almost finished with the '90's, like Ralphie Irizarry said, that whole time I was trying NOT to play Latin! Even though I was playing Latin! You know what I'm saying? And maybe that's where the Funk came in. 'Cause I was playing with a Latin band and I wanted to play Funk... more of a Funk thing. Like I say, I was trying to play Latin, there was a while in the '80's when I first started playing, I had lots of cowbells and lots of percussion instruments on the drums. Then there was a long period where I took all that away. I had 1 cowbell. That's all I wanted, maybe 2 at the most, and 'cause I wanted to get into the drums, but still playing Latin rhythms. But to do something different, you know... To make it more sencillo, you know?
Negro - Simple.
Robby - Like the way I would hear Steve Jordan do. Because at the time when guys were using lots of drums, he was using one tom and a floor and that was it. But he got so into the groove. It was so strong that he didn't need all the colors. And the colors can be great! But the same thing, I know, what you're saying, is you get typecast.
Negro - Do you ever feel that people type you into your Latin drumming?
Robby - Definitely! Because even then, it wasn't so very different. This guy, he would need Latin, so call that guy, even if it's... whatever it is. And because there are so many great players, people have to catalog them one way or another. And it happens to Bebop players, it happens to Funk players. It happened to Dennis Chambers, in a way, that when he first came out playing like Funk and Fusion and nobody could really say Dennis plays straight ahead. He plays, of course, the shit out of straight ahead! But he became famous...
Negro - You don't want to do your own...?
Robby - No.
Negro - Don't you think you have to create something that is strong enough to do in...
Robby - my own band?
Negro - No No Not your own band. Your own music, your own record. I definitely believe...
Robby - I like so much contributing to, you know, to other people's music. Compositionally, as a band. I feel like, with Dave Valentin, I feel like I've contributed to the sound of the band... With whoever. But I like that. As opposed to saying, my music, since I don't really compose. I don't really see the point of being a leader of a band, and not composing. I mean, I'm not saying... There have been people who have done that great, without writing 100 tunes or whatever. But I'm really happy being... playing in this band. What I really don't like... I don't want to be playing one type of thing.
Negro - Right, right, right!
Robby - I really like to be playing in as many different situations...
(After a long night of amazing music, the Bartenders and Waitresses now want to go home!) ...sounds of many thank you's, hugs, bows, heart-clenches, and goodnights from Manhattan's Latin music scene.... the tape finally fades to silence....