Author: Micallef, Ken
Date published: March 1, 2013
Journal code: MDDR
MD: How did you first find work when you arrived in New York in 1999?
Dafnis: In 1996 I was doing a brief residency at Stanford University with the Cuban band Columna B, when I met trumpeter Brian Lynch. After arriving in New York I called Brian to play. I also started going to jam sessions to get exposure. Columna B had some gigs in New York too, and saxophonist Steve Coleman saw me and recommended me to Henry Threadgill. Henry wanted me to be part of his music-he has specific projects for specific musicians-and when I came back three years later, I called him up. It sounds very easy now, but it took time to build up the work. It was all about making connections and keeping in touch with people.
I came to New York with a very small platform, but it became very significant later on. In playing music, there is a fine line between doing what you really want to do and paying your bills. I played weddings, everything.
MD: How did jam sessions help?
Dafnis: More than jam sessions, I started booking gigs around town with a Cuban sax player, Yosvany Terry. We had played in Columna B together. We booked weekly gigs at Zinc Bar and Jazz Gallery, and a lot of musicians came to see the band after they finished their gigs. That was good exposure. I met a lot of musicians who I would eventually play with.
MD: Your Cuban-based drumming style must have helped.
Dafnis: It helped a lot. People noticed me and welcomed me to their projects. I am self-taught on drumset, so it was about the effort I did previously to become a good player. Also, it was the circumstances in the scene then-it was very open. People used to go out more and listen to music just for the pleasure of it.
MD: What advice do you give musicians on getting a foothold now?
Dafnis: You need to be versatile. Say a drummer plays only straightahead jazz. Then he's going to only get that kind of work. When it comes to making a living, and to start the adventure of playing different styles, versatility is really important in becoming a functional working drummer.
MD: And how important is a website?
Dafnis: Back in the '90s it wasn't important, but now it is. Many people, if they want to find out about your playing, they just Google you. Word of mouth was very efficient before. Someone would recommend your gig or your sideman gig. We didn't have all the websites then. Now it's very necessary. I post videos and do mailings, and I do everything possible to get work as a drummer, a composer, and a label owner via my website.
MD: How did you land your current gig with the Cirque du Soleil show Michael Jackson: The Immortal?
Taku: I got a call from Greg Phillinganes, Michael Jackson's former musical director, which I was honored to receive. A lot of it is being in the right place at the right time, so at the very least you have to put yourself in the right place. I went to Berklee between '91 and '95 and played with a lot of musicians who went on to do major gigs. So I started networking. When I got to L.A. I didn't really have a plan. But I started getting in touch with people that I knew from Berklee, such as Lil' John Roberts, who was then finishing a Janet Jackson tour. He called and told me to bring my gear down to rehearsals for an R&B singer, Tevin Campbell. After jamming with the band I was hired for the gig.
The bottom line is, make your ties and keep in touch with them, because you just never know. I believe in keeping in touch with people. And that was in 1999-I didn't even own a laptop then. Before that I would spend any money I had to pay a $10 cover to a club in L.A. We would sit in Denny's at 4 A.M., reading the local paper, looking for connections among musicians who were touring, trying to figure out how to get in and meet people. It takes that kind of diligence. If we'd had the Internet, it would have been easier. But we strategized and plotted and handed out business cards. We went to clubs to see musicians who had major tours but who were playing their own music. We did our due diligence. We networked.
MD: What kind of skill set should a working drummer have?
Taku: There should never be a reason why someone should not hire you for a gig. You should never give them a chance to turn you down. I haven't had too many reading gigs, but I'm known as a reading player-I can play mallets or whatever is required. I could be at Capitol Records and charts will be handed out to everyone, and everyone is expected to play seamlessly. If someone puts a chart in front of you, there may be only one take to cut the song. That's what's expected. Teddy Campbell, who is a good friend, wasn't a reader. But he learned. Now he can read anything.
Also important is having a good personality, which will keep you getting called back for the gig-but you have to be able to play the gig to get the gig. After that, keeping the gig is about getting along with everybody.