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Legend to Legend

Your favorite artists get the inside beat on some of their favorite artists!

Walfredo Reyes Sr
Walfredo Reyes Sr

Jose Carlos Fajardo / Times

Beat goes on for percussionist

By Jennifer Modenessi


Walfredo Reyes Sr., a tall, thin man with olive skin and heavy-lidded eyes, moves with the elegance of a bygone era.

Standing in the kitchen of his Concord home next to his wife, Debbie Bellamy-Reyes, he cuts an impressive figure. It's a hot June day but the groundbreaking Cuban-born percussionist and drummer is thinking of an espresso, explaining that it's a Cuban tradition to have your coffee and then a cigar, "if you like such things."

There's a measured coolness to Reyes' words, a confidence and pride that stem from 72 years that have taken him from the opulent casino and music-drenched days of pre-Revolution Cuba to USO aircraft carriers, playing his American drum set, timbales, conga and clave to dancing couples and weary troops.

He's also played with stars such as Bobby Darin and Sammy Davis Jr. and lent his drumming talent to Carlos Santana, John Mayall and Steve Winwood among many others.

Honored as a pioneer

Decades later, the beat shows no signs of letting up.

Reyes was honored in Modern Drummer Magazine's July edition with the 2005 Editors Achievement Award, which recognized his pioneering creation of a hybrid style of Latin percussion and American drumming, as well as his lengthy career as a musician, clinician and educator.

These days, Reyes spends his time coaxing staccato rhythms and sinuous beats out of the three drum kits in his home studio. A dedicated musician, Reyes is committed to playing the drums every day.

Photographs line the soundproof walls of Reyes' practice space -- glossy promo shots of his actor son Kamar de los Reyes ... snaps of his drummer sons Danny and Walfredo Jr. Then there are the vintage yellowed prints ... the black-and-white photos of sharply dressed show bands; a pin-thin man with a dark neckerchief sitting behind double bass drums. These are snapshots rescued from a country that would later disallow these images -- these legacies -- to leave its soil.

It all began in Cuba.

"I was born into a musician's family." Reyes said. "My father was a very good trumpet player and he played with one of the most famous orchestras in Cuba. My father was named Walfredo de los Reyes. My grandfather was named the same thing but he was a dentist, he wasn't a musician."

Reyes' father and uncle Emilio -- also a trumpet player -- immigrated to the United States in 1939, hoping to hit the big time.

"Let's say you're a baseball player and you're doing fine in your country and it's beautiful but you want to play in the big leagues," Reyes explains. "In music it's the same thing. You wanted to come to New York and prove that you were a great trumpet player -- play with bands and jazz if you were a jazz fan. Of course at that time, I'm talking about 1940, we had the mambo. That was when everything was happening. The rumba -- the famous rumba -- all the rhythms were coming out of Cuba and other countries in Latin America. So there was a craze for that."

Life in New York

Reyes' father and uncle arrived in New York and began working with different orchestras and musicians such as Tito Puente, giving Walfredo the opportunity of growing up at rehearsals and recording sessions, watching musicians both in the Latin field and in the jazz field.

That exposure to bebop and jazz and Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis proved influential to Reyes but "I wanted to be a drummer -- no trumpet. I was tired of the trumpet," Reyes said.

After the family relocated to Hell's Kitchen, Reyes had access to theaters on Broadway and drummers such as Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa and Max Roach, giving him a firm grounding in American jazz. Reyes' father found him a drum teacher, and Reyes began attending the Music and Arts High School in New York City.

Then, at 18, Reyes and his family returned to Cuba. It was there that his career began.

"It was incredible -- incredible!" Reyes recalled. "Another university. For me, being in Cuba after almost 20 years made me what I am today. Cuba is an incredible, rhythmic, musical country."

Reyes began playing Latin percussion -- timbales, congas, bongos -- and experimenting with Cuban music and jazz, mixing the folkloric instruments with the American drum set.

He played with dozens of orchestras and formed a musical partnership with Cuban jazz great Israel "Cachao" Lopez. Together, Reyes and Cachao pioneered descargas, which means, he says, "to get off, to do whatever you want, whatever you want to play" Closely related to American jam sessions, descargas were recorded live and released as albums.

Havana breakthrough

It was during Reyes' next gig, leading his own band at the Hotel Nacional in Havana, that he pioneered the drumming style for which he is legendary -- a combination of the congas and clave (a two-stick Latin percussion instrument) with the American drum set.

"I needed a singer or a conga player, so I got the singer," he says. "Now I didn't have the conga player, and I needed a certain sound to the band. So I would play the drum set with one hand ... timbales, the tom-tom, the bass drum, etc. Then I found out I could work my left hand independent from the right. So I started playing the clave on the high hat and the conga drums with my left hand."

As Modern Drummer Magazine's tribute noted, necessity had proved to be the mother of invention. "Walfredo instituted what we now call 'Latin Jazz,'" said the magazine.

Reyes' people still ask him about it.

"I get calls and e-mails ... (asking) 'I know you're playing timbales, but who's the conga player?'" Reyes smiles. "I have to answer, 'It's me alone. It's nobody else.'"

Two years into Fidel Castro's revolution -- a topic the drummer says is too difficult for him to discuss -- was all Reyes could take, so he set out once again.

Back to the U.S.

Reyes journeyed to Puerto Rico, where he played at the El San Juan Hotel and landed in Las Vegas in 1970. He backed a number of acts and joined the Don Vincent Orchestra and later Wayne Newton's band, embarking on 12 years of travel that included memorable gigs on USO tours entertaining troops in the Persian Gulf. Moving northward, Reyes found himself in Lake Tahoe, where he met violinist Debbie Bellamy, a Bay Area native, who is now his wife, manager and right hand. The couple settled in Concord.

Today Reyes hosts old friends, such as singer Omara Portuondo and members of the Buena Vista Social Club, when they come to the Bay Area and volunteers his time to youths, giving free clinics to raise money for aspiring musicians and mentoring the Concord Blue Devils Jazz Band. He's extremely passionate about music in schools.

That's where the humble Reyes believes some of his greatest contributions to music have been made.

"The young generation coming out is very talented ... right here, right here where we live. Teach the young people -- these kids that cannot pay teachers and universities and colleges, and help them out. I would never, never, never like music taken out of the schools. We need our kids to be in programs.

"That's it ... what I like to do." Reyes smiled. "Progress."