Interview by Eric Everett
Photographs: Emy Machado
Grace. Complexity. Nuance.
Amhed Mitchel is a drummer’s drummer. He’s inside baseball. He’s a special talent that’s beginning to bubble to the surface.
I knew I was in store for a special treat when Nighttown proprietor and jazz arbiter Jim Wadsworth pulled me aside and said: “Wait until you hear this drummer.”
And, heard I did.
Amhed approached me with a warm, infectious smile and humility that belied his superior mastery of percussive accompaniment. He was one-part traps player, one-part percussionist who blended seamlessly within the piano trio that evening.
Such qualities are sure to serve Amhed well as he respectfully takes his Cuban family’s tradition of musical excellence forward in 2019: but, with his own touch, and an open mind.
EE: I recently saw you perform with Chuchito Valdez at Nighttown in Cleveland. Your accompaniment to such a dynamic pianist was both subtle and dynamic. How did you get the call to join Chuchito and what does he expect of you as a player?
AM: Early one morning I got a call from Roberto Occhipinti, a friend and a legendary bass player and producer in Canada, inquiring on my availability to play a few shows in the U.S. with Chuchito Valdes. I decided to do them since, interestingly enough, the last time Chuchito and I shared a stage was 20 years ago, maybe even longer.
Chuchito has dedicated his career to deeply explore and incorporate Cuban music’s roots to the majority of his compositions, with a clear vision of how he wants his projects to be perceived, something that is not complicated when surrounding yourself with musicians that understand your origin. In my case, as a Cuban drummer, I’ve always kept in mind the respect for the musical concepts developed by previous generations, and I’ve constantly nurtured myself with them and, I believe that in this case, it made Chuchito’s work easier. It is always helpful to know that whoever comes to share the stage with you understands your ideas, as it facilitates the flow with less complications. I’ve been very blessed to have played with many of the most relevant musicians from the Cuban scene including his father the great Chucho Valdés. Although I have not been part of his own projects, we have made recordings and concerts together in different types of collaborations both in Cuba and abroad, and this made it much easier to understand Chuchito’s work since his main influence has been his father.
EE: Who “owns” the time when playing with a pianist, who also shares a rhythmic instrument? Do you follow the pianist’s time or do you establish the time for the pianist and bassist to follow?
AM: Well, I think that’s a very interesting question since I believe that It does not depend on just one player, it depends on all of them in most cases. I really think that we all have the responsibility to bring any kind of musical arrangement to its maximum exposure on stage, in the case of Cuban music our key element is the Clave and everything we play it always respects those classic 5 hits, although you may not necessarily hear it in every musical arrangement, it is always present in the mind of each musician who plays it; it is the Clave that really guides us through the development of any musical idea, making it easier for everyone when it comes to maintaining the beat. Of course, the percussion and the bass are the rhythmic basis that hold the beat for the other musicians in an ensemble, but, in the case of Cuban Jazz when playing as a trio or quartet, I find that one can play much more open with the rhythmic and harmonic concept, in this case, as I mentioned before, I believe that the responsibility of time is shared by all musicians present.
EE: Tell me about your early experiences learning drumming from your father, Jorge, a great Cuban drummer.
AM: I was introduced to the musical world by my father Jorge Mitchel; he was a respected drummer in my province Matanzas, Cuba. I owe all my musical knowledge to him as he was my maximum inspiration. Despite the short resources we have in Cuba, my father always tried to innovate any drums part to make the drums more comfortable, and I remember that he even hand copied all kinds of drum books he could get his hands on so that we could study. I also remember that it was very difficult to get any kind of musical information such as cassettes, videos, etc. Thankfully, my father had amazing friends that, if they traveled outside of Cuba and brought any interesting concerts, we would go to their house and together we would experience the music of different U.S. jazz scene artists. This was how I could see for the first time video concerts from Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, as well as drummers like Buddy Rich, Billy Cobham, Dave Weckl, Steve Gadd, Vinnie Colaiuta, Peter Erskine.
I’ve always been amazed how Cuban musicians, in spite of the lack of musical instruments and studying materials, have always fought tirelessly for our development and musical knowledge.
When I was 11 years old, I enrolled in the Matanzas School of Art. This was a brand-new chapter in my life. I remember that I would stay in school during the week and come home only on weekends. School hours were very well distributed among all classes, and it was a good preparation for me since classical music was the first training that we receive in a Cuban music school. After high school, I enrolled in the National School of Arts in Havana but only for one year, due to the economic difficulties the country was facing. I decided to go back home to help my family…that’s how I started working as a musician in different hotels in Varadero, which was very close to my hometown.
“Cuba has always been an island full of musical talent with good musicians in every corner; it depends on discipline and correct attitude on how far you can go – this is the only way to get to play with your heroes one day.”
EE: How did studying with your father open the door to joining the Cuban music scene, especially Havana Ensemble and Cesar Lopez and Chucho Valdez?
AM: From a very young age I went to my father’s performances, and I remember that he always explained everything about the music that he was playing at that moment. For example, he made me follow the chart that he was playing, and he explained the different parts, this way, I could expand my knowledge for my future. Even today, every time I sit on my instrument, I get all those childhood memories of seeing my father sitting on his drums. I was acquiring more and more interest for not only playing my instrument as best as possible, but always trying to be surrounded by talented musicians in order to learn more and more. My father always had as a goal that I played with the most recognized musicians in my country and that is why he prepared me with great rigor.
Through a friend and excellent Cuban renowned singer (Juaquin More) I was recommended to play for the first time at a band in Havana called ” Top Secret ” directed by Jose Miguel Crego, better known as El Greco, excellent and renowned trumpeter in all of Cuba. Later, I was recommended by bassist and good friend Juan Pablo Dominguez to become part of the excellent pianist Alexis Boch’s project. The musicians of this project were also part of the renowned Havana Ensemble band led by talented saxophonist Cesar Lopez. A year later, I also became part of this band. Honestly, that’s how I began to put into practice all the knowledge acquired from my father and that way began a new learning chapter. I had to synchronize everything learned from my father with all the demands from these excellent musicians. For me, they were years of incredible joy and that’s how I was solidifying my knowledge.
It was through all these musicians that many doors started to open for recordings, concerts, tours, television programs, etc. After that, I became part of the talented Cuban guitarist Elmer Ferrer’s band who also played together with Cesar Lopez. By playing with this wonderful team of musicians, I had the opportunity to be more recognized for my work, and that’s how I began to collaborate with other artists who had an advanced musical career in Cuba.
Cuba has always been an island full of musical talent with good musicians in every corner; it depends on discipline and correct attitude on how far you can go – this is the only way to get to play with your heroes one day. My father always had admiration for the great Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes (Chuchito’s father). Being able to play with Chucho has always been one of every Cuban musician’s great goals, because of Chucho’s talent and work rigor. My father was a good friend and student of the legendary Cuban musician Enrique Pla, drummer of the famous band Irakere, led by Chucho Valdes. I remember that my Aunt Elcilia Ponce (my father’s sister) taught music at the school of professional development Ignacio Cervantes in Havana during the mid 80’s. She managed to get an enrollment for my father, and this is how he began taking classes with Enrique. I cannot fail to mention how important my Aunt Elcilia’s help was on my career and that of my father’s and also on many of the recognized musicians of my country. Chuchito himself was also one of her students. For me, it was surprising the link, that through my father, I had with all those great musicians. Even though I was a child at the time, I can say that it was my first inclination towards Cuban jazz.
I consider myself fortunate having been able to play on different occasions with Chucho Valdes, ”El Maestro” as we all call him. My last concert was a couple of years ago at the Koerner Hall in Toronto, Canada, accompanying three excellent pianist of the Cuban jazz scene, Chucho Valdes, Hilario Duran and the young Cuban talent who resides in New York, David Virelles. This is how I have been fulfilling my father’s dreams for me.
EE: Are you friends with drummer Ignacio Berroa, who originally left Cuba for the U.S.? Some of the tracks on your release Naciente (2017) blend jazz and Cuban/Latin styles, which is reminiscent of Berroa’s playing style.
AM: Yes, I met Ignacio personally a few years ago through my friend the great pianist Hilario Duran; they were working together for some of Hilario’s concerts. Ignacio has been a great inspiration for every Cuban drummer. I really like his versatility when interpreting different styles – he is very clear on the concepts to play all kinds of music, and his dynamics are impressive — he is among my favorite drummers. When I play, I always respect the concepts developed by other generations of percussionists in my country, and clearly, Ignacio plays an extremely important role in my own playing.
EE: What’s your biggest regret?
AM: Well, I am one of those who believe that everything happens for a good reason in due time, but honestly, I would have liked to finish my studies at the National School of Arts in Havana. It was a hard decision for me, and of course, my father did not agree that I would leave my studies in Havana, which is logical.
EE: Your home base is Toronto – does it have a vibrant jazz music scene?
AM: Toronto is a city filled with talented musicians, as we all know it is a cosmopolitan city and that has allowed me to meet musicians from all over the world. In the case of the Jazz scene, I really enjoy being part of different types of projects. I feel fortunate to have a good musical community that also includes many talents from my country of origin that over time have settled in Canada. Several of them are recognized as excellent musicians both in Cuba and internationally – this has made the city that much more special to me.
EE: What’s next for you musically? What musical collaborations are you most proud of?
AM: I’ve been part of many great collaborations that have been very important for my career, a big highlight was in 2004 when I was on tour in Japan with Cesar Lopez and Havana Ensemble at the Tokyo Jazz Festival, and I was chosen, along with other musicians, to be part of a “super band” for the closing of the festival. The band was directed by the famous jazz pianist Herbie Hancock. There were big names from the Jazz scene such as Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland, Brian Blade, Dianne Reeves, Lionel Loueke and Hiromi Uehara. This was a wonderful experience for me, and I feel very proud to have been part of this cast. After many years of listening to albums by all of these greats of the Jazz world, I was suddenly playing with them. It was something phenomenal.
About my next steps, I have a broad vision in everything related to music, and I dedicate a good part of my time to composing, recording and producing for myself and other artists. Soon, I will be in Europe playing a series of concerts with the renowned Cuban pianist Hilario Duran who is promoting his new album Contumbao. I’m enjoying this project a lot since it was a production recorded by my friend and excellent Cuban drummer the great Horacio ” El Negro ” Hernandez.
EE: On your two solo albums (Path to Heaven and Naciente), did you compose the melodies or only the rhythmic foundation?
AM: I composed all of the music for my two albums. It was something that I enjoyed a lot since I was able to leave engraved what I had in my head at the time. Both the first and second albums marked the end of different stages of my life me since I could show the result of various experiences both musical and spiritual. What really helps me to compose fluently are special moments related to my present and past; I think it is the most positive way to musically translate everything related to our lives. I have three ways of composing: with the piano, my guitar and directly through Sibelius, which is my favorite software for writing music, I only bring in the drums when I have all the music ready.
“When playing a tune, as the theme develops, I interact a little more, merging different styles that can be related to the type of music we are playing. I always step on the stage with a very open mind, that way, my drumming ideas revolve around the work of all others on stage.”
EE: Who are your favorite musicians?
AM: Since childhood, I’ve listened to different types of recordings from classical, R&B, jazz, smooth jazz, pop, rock to everything else in between. I like all kinds of music and I am not tied to a specific style, I have a wide list of artists whom I have been dedicated to following. I grew up listening to many albums like Earth Wind and Fire, Commodores, as well as Quincy Jones, Miles Davis, George Benson, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, and Cuban bands like Irakere, NG, Van Van, Gonzalito Rubalcaba with his “Projecto” band and many more, since they were my father’s favorite artists. When I started my studies at my province’s School of Arts I was only 11 years old. I was introduced to classical composers like Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, Shubert, just to name a few, and automatically became a fan of their compositions. Much of what I owe to my the Cuban School of Art is that although my main was percussion, every musician has an obligation to study piano as a complementary subject — this meant that not only did I listen to the work of these classical composers, but I also had to play many of them as part of my evaluation.
From an early age I’ve been a fan of the work of many American drummers like Buddy Rich, Jack Dejonnette, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Steve Gadd, Dave Weckl, Jeff Porcaro, Vinnie Colaiuta, andDennis Chambers as their recordings were the ones that were available in Cuba. My favorite Cuban drummers are: Guillermo Barreto, Ignacio Berroa, Enrique Pla, Ernesto Simpson, Jose Luis Quintana better known as “Changuito,” Horacio Hernandez, Osmany Sanchez, Oscarito Valdez, Calixto Oviedo, Bernardo Garcia, among others. They were my father’s favorites, and by being exposed to their music, I also became interested in their work.
I was also inspired, as a student, by very good drummers and colleagues of my father that were musically established in my province of Matanzas, Cuba. These drummers included: Miguel Angel Rodriguez (Miguelon), Cintra, Raul Taberas, Alexis Madan and Juan Carlos Rojas (El Peje) who years later became part of one of Chucho Valdes projects. In later years, I began to know other talents that were already playing with recognized bands both national and international, such as Julio Barreto, Giraldo Piloto, Samuel Formel, Jimmy Branly, Raul Pineda, Lukmil Perez, Ramses Rodriguez, Ruiz Lopez Nussa, YoelPaez and Fernando Favier.
At the beginning of my career in the city of Havana I started a more direct relationship, through my work and collaborations, with many of the drummers closer to my musical generation, that at that time, already both in and out of Cuba had a successful career and were collaborating with different recognized artists. These drummers were Rodney Barreto, Oliver Valdes, Francisco Mela, Roicel Riveron, Kiki Ferrer, Georvis Pico, Roelvis Reyes (bonbon), Ruly Herrera, Ruy Adrian and many more. I mention them because I consider that we all have played a very important role for our own playing by sharing all kinds of information (not an easy task due to the shortage of resources available in Cuba), and also checking our work when we had the chance — even nowadays we still do that. I think this makes us all have a little bit of each other’s style, and for me personally, that is something for which I am very grateful. They’ve also became my favorite drummers as I constantly feed from both the older and the younger generations that, through their careers, continue to elevate the name of my country on a high musical scale.
EE: How has your playing style evolved? Do you play with more space?
AM: I think that my playing evolves as I collect all kinds of information, and of course, always respecting the work of each of the musician I’ve been on stage with. In the case of Cuban Jazz, I often try to play with simplicity, and yes, I like to work with much space. I enjoy establishing basic patterns from Cuban percussion like the bongo, congas or timbales, and bring it to the drums in a basic, simple and traditional way that everyone can recognize and the audience can enjoy. When playing a tune, as the theme develops, I interact a little more, merging different styles that can be related to the type of music we are playing. I always step on the stage with a very open mind, that way, my drumming ideas revolve around the work of all others on stage.
EE: How do you integrate the Clave into your playing?
AM: The Clave to any Cuban musician is like a sacred ritual – there is no way to play a musical instrument without taking it into account. These five hits are fundamental in our music, and it’s something I always keep in mind when playing my drums. As I mentioned before, it is not necessarily something that is always heard in a performance, but nevertheless it is always present in any musical idea on both drums or any other instrument. Due to the versatility of the projects that I play with, I think that one of the things they may like most about my playing is how I can relate any type of style to the Clave, a task that is not difficult since the Clave is in every musical style.
Every Cuban ever born is involved with the Clave. Cubans love music and they do not necessarily have to be a musician to know where the Clave can be in a song. Everyone who has visited Cuba and has walked through its streets knows that there is music all day long; therefore, I would consider that we have the Clave as an unconditional reflex. If you asked some Cubans about the Clave, they would clap it correctly where they feel it goes in a song. Even though they cannot give a technical explanation about the beat, it is just something that they feel. For me, I constantly relate my playing to the Clave by incorporating all my hits around it, whether fast or syncopated. I also keep the Clave in mind when I compose.
EE: What sound do you prefer when selecting cymbals? What’s your typical drum setup?
AM: I’ve been in the Istanbul cymbals family for almost 10 years, and their warm sounds are what I really want to hear when I play. When I make a selection, I always look for the cymbal to not be so bright; I like more of a darker sound, like the Agop and Vezir series. I think they are perfect for me, just what I need. I use the Istanbul Sultan series 14” hi-hats and an Agop series 20” ride on my left and a Vezir series 22” ride on my right, as well as a Traditional series 18” crash.
I have been part of the Pearl drums family for about seven years and I use the Reference and Reference Pure series. I constantly change the type of setup depending on the performances, many times using the full drums: two rack toms sizes 10 ” and 12,”; two floor toms sizes 14 ” and 16,” ; bass drums sizes are 22” or 18.” Depending on the type of gig, I use different types of snares, a Pearl cowbell from the El Negro series, a jam block, and I add the amount of cymbals according to the type of performance. In the case of the Latin jazz, I always use the same setup: a single tom size 10” or 12”, two floor toms and an 18″ bass drum. My favorite snare is a 5×14″ Reference Pure Series. I also use Remo drumheads and Vater drumsticks’ Manhattan 7A series.