DANIEL PONCE: The Tragic Passing Of A Cuban Master Drummer

Daniel Ponce RIP

Daniel Ponce RIP

Last Sunday I picked up a distraught message from my good friend Sue Steward, who has written extensively about Afro Cuban music and the NYC and Miami Latin/Salsa scenes. She had just heard the sad and tragic news that Cuban master percussionist, Daniel Ponce had died in Miami, the victim of a massive heart attack.

In recent times Daniel had shunned the limelight  of the US Latin music scene and, as a result, information surrounding his untimely passing at the age of 59 remains scarce.  Sue, along with others who had worked with Daniel and respected him – like the legendary Verna Gillis – are working to open up lines of communication within the Latin music community and beyond to ensure his passing does not go unnoticed. Daniel Ponce deserves  recognition for his startling and innovative contribution to a genre of music that millions of people love and draw both strength and pride from.

Though I never met Daniel Ponce, I am assured that he was both a genius and, at times, notoriously difficult to work with. He fled from Fidel’s Cuba on the Mariel and his impact on the NYC scene was immediate.  Suddenly, the percussion dons of the day – Tito Puente and Ray Baretto – had some earthy and fierce competition and word was they didn’t dig it. Instantly recognized as one of the finest percussionists to arrive in the city  since the heyday of Chano Pozo and Candido Camero, Ponce displayed rhythmic mastery of both folkloric  Cuban music and contemporary African-American rhythms.  For a taste of the man’s skills  check this scintillating and deep guaguancó from his from his 1983 US debut ‘ New York Now!’.

Daniel Ponce’s grandfather was a famous bata drummer and initiated his grandson into the tradition early in his life.  At 11 he played cowbell with Los Brillantes in Havana and once in his teens switched to playing congas with Comparso Federacion Estudiantil Universitario. He fled to the States in 198o and headed straight to NYC.  At the invitation of Jerry and Andy Gonzalez  he sat in at the Village Gate where he met another Cuban defector saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera.  A working relationship developed and Daniel was enlisted to play on a  Paquito’s ‘Manhattan Burn’  album. He also did sessions for stellar NYC / Puerto Rican pianist Eddie Palmieri and the enigmatic genius Kip Hanrahan but it was producer/bassist Bill Laswell who was to elevate the percussionist’s career to another level.  Laswell landed him a session with Herbie Hancock that finally emerged as the  critically acclaimed and huge selling ‘Future Shock’ LP.

Ponce cut his first album, ‘New York Now!’ for Celluloid Records in ’83 and followed that up with the innovative and brilliant ‘Arawe’, which was also produced by Laswell. Around that time La Reina (Sue Steward), Dave Hucker, Gerry Lyseight and myself were all playing out at parties or on pirate radio and I can’t recall the number of sessions at which I played Ponce’s dynamite  composition ‘Oromi’. I’m playing it right now and it remains a slice of rootical dance floor perfection with brilliant horns, marimba and two serious rumba breakdowns.

‘Arawe’ was followed in ’91 by the Oscar Hernandez produced  ‘Chango Te Llama’. It was a muscular but more straight ahead affair than its predecessor. It was clearly aimed into the Latin and Latin Jazz market and that’s where the man went leading groups like New York Now and Jazzbata. After that Daniel Ponce faded from the spotlight. Sadly, it was not a brilliant new recording or terrific new band but tragic news of his death on a street in Miami that has brought the fiery  master percussionist back into our lives.

Daniel Ponce RIP

About Paul Brad

Freelance journalist / Publisher Editor - Straight No Chaser magazine & From Jazz Funk & Fusion to Acid Jazz: A History Of The UK Jazz dance Scene by Mark 'Snowboy' Cotgrove / Music Fan: Interplanetary Sounds: Ancient to Future / Cultural Event Consultant & Activist / Nei Jia practitioner
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30 Responses to DANIEL PONCE: The Tragic Passing Of A Cuban Master Drummer

  1. Barry says:

    thanks for that.

    • I am saddened for the loss of Daniel Ponce, whom I had the priviledge of working with a long time ago. I enjoyed playing piano on stage with him because it was challenging and kept me on my toes, and his conga and bata playing were out of this planet. He was definitely a unique gifted master percussionist from cuba that landed in the usa and shook things up in the new york latin jazz music scene and abroad with his impeccable conga rythms that we will never forget. May you rest in peace Daniel.

  2. Maggie Gregory says:

    Another fallen great sadly in a town surrounded by his own heritage yet few here in Miami knew of his great contribution to music…so unfortunate that Miami has a reputation of being the land of tropical delight yet our music roots fade here in our own back yard because no one here really supports the music…Those of us that do support are all the original New Yorkers here in Miami yet the cubans dont seem to pledge to their own roots!!!

  3. Pingback: R.I.P. Master Drummer, DANIEL PONCE: The Tragic Passing Of A Cuban Master Drummer | | HARD TRUTHS & bubble gum!

  4. Mark Sanders says:

    Dear Mr. Brad, thank you for writing this deserved short and informative obit./tribute to the late Mr. Ponce, it is the only one I’ve seen even days after I was informed of his death.
    As a musician myself, I always find it personally quite upsetting, especially relating to a musician…to learn that a musician may have died with no close family left or in this case sadly as you stated: “Four days on from his being found nobody had turned up to claim the body and it seemed that nobody cared.”
    Fortunately two as you stated, several came to help.
    Despite the hardships which may have befallen him either in Cuba, in N.Y.C. or later in Miami… I know he lived a rich and varied musical life.
    M. Sanders

    • Paul Brad says:

      Hi Mark… I was wrong to write that “nobody cared” – even though it seemed that way at the time. There was a tragic lack of information but since then I have learned that Daniel’s daughter and his son were diligently trying to resolve what must have been for them a very difficult and stressful situation. Hopefully, they can draw some solace from the love and respect that people like yourself feel at the passing of their father.

  5. Steven Sandberg says:

    I worked closely with Daniel during his stay in New York – in fact I arranged and co-produced the album “Arawe.” I also played with him live, and spent an unforgettable month in Paris with him playing every night at La Chapelle de Lombards. Daniel was a many-sided person that’s for sure – scary at times, childlike often, unexpectedly gracious and funny. I’m really happy that his music is still remembered and played and enjoyed. Oh- it may seem churlish to mention this upon his death, but I actually wrote and arranged Oromoi – Puntilla added the choruses and singing to the rumba breaks. At a time when certain members of the salsa establishment in NY were quick to shout “out of clave!” about anything they didn’t immediately get (like the piano breaks leading to the rumba sections), Daniel and Puntilla were open and saw immediate correspondences with the bata tradition.

    • Paul Brad says:

      Hi Steven… thank you the memories and the insights and if you did the arrangements on ‘Oromi’ then I have to say “Massive respect to you!” It’s A bold and wonderful track. Thanks again.

      • Steven Sandberg says:

        thank you! it actually started out as an arrangement of stevie wonder’s pastime paradise …

    • Mark Sanders says:

      “At a time when certain members of the salsa establishment in NY were quick to shout “out of clave!” about anything they didn’t immediately get”
      And that still happens!!

  6. Dario Rosendo says:

    Dario Rosendo says:

    Daniel Ponce revolutionized conga playing here in the States after arriving on the Mariel Boat Lift in 1980. He brought the SONGO rhythm with him from Cuba and opened the eyes of all of us congueros here. Daniel was at the top of the percussion world for most of the 80’s and early 90’s, recording and playing with everyone, including Yoko Ono. He left NYC and settled here in Miami, away from the limelight, playing mostly religious Santeria music. Daniel was only 59. May he rest in peace. Rumbero mayor!

  7. Daniel was a master musician and drummer and it pains me to hear of his passing. Unfortunately he physically threatened me when Paquito and I where joking with him about girls backstage before playing a gig in 1982. Paquito told him to chill out on the kid. That I was only 21 years old. Paquito and I being of the same joking cuban nature realized this great musician who Paquito himself never heard of in Cuba was loved more then he knew himself by all who came in touch with him. But you could only get so close to him. We where just joking perhaps like brothers. So we backed away and I pretty much didn’t want to cause any trouble. He was an intense guy and tough. I apologized a few times but he never replied. We all had it rough in Cuba you know? So I thought to stay away from the person was the best thing to do. I never held it against him or anyone else for that matter for what happened. Its not in my nature. I just don’t think he was the type of person who could take a joke or want to make friends. Even though my experience as a band mate with Daniel was off to a bad start nevertheless it was a great opportunity for me to play with him and Paquito at 7th Avenue South with Randy Brecker and many other gigs. Rest in peace Maestro. Robertico Rodriguez-Drummer

  8. Steven Sandberg says:

    yes he had that side for sure – i was always a bit scared of him even though he kinda loved me lol –

  9. Rich Carter says:

    Just hear about this today 4/5/13. Wow! what sad news. I had the pleasure of participating in a groups workshop with Daniel in London back in the early? 90s. He brought so much to the the Afro-Cuban music in his time.

    Daniel I miss you and your inspiration.

    Thank you

  10. Remco says:

    I lost my NEW YORK NOW CD, and suddenly had the urge to listen to it on youtube, when I found out of his death.
    I have been a percussionist fan since I was small, but never made it further than some conga and bata lessons. When my teacher borrowed me his D.Ponce CD, I was and still am so impressed about the vibe of Ponces drumming, never really heard it from other percussionists.

    from Curacao !

  11. Daniel truly revolutionize the Tumbadora playing (he never called “Conga” his instrument) in New York. We used to call him “El Pulpo” or the octopus because of his dexterity and speed on percussion. It’s a pity that , due to his difficult, unpredictable character, he never enjoyed the success and recognition he deserved professionally.
    Paquito D’Rivera

  12. I was very sorry to hear about the passing of Daniel Ponce. When I was living in New York and playing with Ray Barretto’s band in 1982 and 1983, I had the pleasure of playing in a few rumbas with Daniel Ponce. I also got to hang out with him. I didn’t see any of the difficult personality others describe in some of the replies to the article. In my experience, he was intense, gave his heart with his playing, and was an inspiration to me. He played with power, intensity, and ferocity. He touched people with his music through his albums and by taking drumming to a whole new level at that time. I happened to run into him in a Hilton Hotel lobby in Shinjuku, Japan, in 1989 while I was on tour with Ruben Blades. It was just a random meeting, and I was very happy to see him in a whole new environment outside of New York. What a coincidence to run into him all the way in Asia. We took a photo together, which I’m grateful to now have as a memento. Rest in peace, Daniel.

    Roger Danilo Paiz

  13. Tanary ponce says:

    My great grandfather was not a famous bata player… One of my great grandfathers was in the marines in Cuba and the other one was a cobbler… They highly disapproved of my father being a congero and wanted him to follow in their footsteps…My father learned how to play at a young age because my grandmother use to take him to the local rumbas and carnivals in Havana and I once remember my grandmother telling me that my father at the age of 11 use to go to the rumbas and knew how to play the “toque de santos and bata” without anyone ever teaching him…He was born with something very special…Just wanted to give out the correct information so we could continue on remember my father and the amazing talent he had….RIP Papi

    • Paul Brad says:

      Hi Tanary, Thank you for correcting the information about your father’s history and enlightening us to his prodigious God given talents as a child. Many of the posts here are from Daniel’s fellow musicians, some of whom played with him while other who were blown away & inspired by his recordings, but it’s clear that all viewed him as great musician and the comments of both Paquito and Roger Danilo Paiz confirm the common held belief that Daniel truly revolutionised tumbadora playing upon his arrival in NYC. We are deeply sorry for you and your family’s loss and when the musical community pay their respects at the Memorial on June 17th our thoughts will be with you. Best wishes, Paul B

  14. Maria Alvarez says:

    Very saddened to hear that Daniel Ponce is no longer with us. I first heard him in the early 80’s when that new sound called Songo just crept into my soul. His playing was out of this world. Like so many musicians that came to the US in the 80’s, it is so disappointing to see how the Cuban community in Florida didnt flinch an eye. OF course, this was a new wave of Cuban musicians, Afro-Cubans, well prepared and bombastic musicians. Lets begin to pay attention because they’ve taking the music to another dimension.

  15. Mark Sanders says:

    Daniel Ponce Memorial:
    Monday, June 17, St.Peter’s Church 619 Lexington Avenue N.Y.C.

  16. Kendall Brown says:

    Greetings to all. I had the wonderful experience of working with Mr. Ponce, in my capacity as audio engineer, at the historic jazz club Mikells, on the upper west side of Manhattan, NYC in the late 1980’s. I believe that Daniel was at that time holding down the congero’s chair with either Hilton Ruiz or Dave Valentine. It was always a joy to experience Mr. Ponce’s “organic authenticity”. My sincere condolences to his family and all who appreciated him.
    Respectfully.
    Kendall Brown,
    Audio Engineer/ Production Manager, NYC

  17. Kendall Brown says:

    I wish to correct my previous post. Mr. Ponce appeared, on multiple occasions, at Mikell’s with Paquito D’ Rivera. I apologize for my error.

    Respectfully.

    Kendall Brown

  18. Frank colon says:

    I am very surprised to find out about the passing of Daniel Ponce, a human being physically stronger than most normal people. His tremendous physicality on his instruments was what immediately impacted the New York percussionists of the 80’s, instantly branding him as “the most violent conguero in the city!” Add to that, the sophistication of the mathematical and tonal-linguistic rhythms and chants of the Lucimi/Yoruba tradition which he wove into his playing and the result was the unique musical mixture that Daniel brought to modern music.

    And, yes, he had quite a mercurial personality, whose emotions could swing 180 degrees in half a second. But, we got along great, as he would be a frequent visitor at my pad on Bleeker St, in the Village. At the time, I was still a part of Julito Collazo’s Bata ensemble, as well as a member of Tania Maria’s band, and we would jam together often at the Soundscape performance space. We saw each other as two cats firmly rooted in the African/Caribbean religious traditions while simultaneously extending our eyes and musicality out to new horizons.

    The last time that we were together was at a recording with maestro Chico O’Farrill, at Nola Studios, on top of the Steinway building…we talked for a long while and we swapped copies of our last recordings. We hugged quickly and said goodbye as I was called in to the studio to perform an overdub…and that was the last time I ever saw him.

    Thank you for your music, Daniel!

  19. Joseito says:

    Daniel’s playing was a big influence on me when I was young. He was part of a drummer’s dream concert in DC which had various traditions and percusionists playing in different settings, such as Tito Puente, Max Roach, Babatunde Olatunji. But I was there to hear him of course. New York Now! was the album that inspired me to pursue playing congas. Was sad not to hear any more for him for many years, but he did come back to recording with Alfredo Triff’s last 2 albums, Boleros Perdidos (2007) & Dadason(2009). Those familiar with his touch will recognise his playing easily. Gracias maestro!

  20. ukrania says:

    Good morning;
    Today I just want to tell you a little of how it really happens;

    One year after Danel Ponce died, I had to stand and reply to all the lies that has been saidabout Daniel’s dead.
    first of all Daniel Ponce died el 10 de marzo de 2013 dia de carnival de calle ocho un ano atras,
    Daniel no estaba solo ni estuvo 4 dias solo desde que abandono la ciudad de new York y vino arefugiarse en kla ciudad del sol con la mujer que lo acompano hasta el mismo dia de su muerte.la senora Ukrania Ramos a quien nadie se le ha acurrido ni siquiera reconocer y respetarle sus derechos, ni la senora berna ni quien la acompana en este jornada de mentiras y falsedad.
    El muerto no estubo nunca abandonado, murio al salir de casa de su senora en la esquina de casa de su senora, BIEN VESTIDO, BIEN COMIDO, BIEN PERFUMADO,, CONTENTO Y SATISFECHO, FELIZ PORQUE ERA DIA DE CARNAVAL, EL MUERTO NO ESTUVO ABANDONADO DOS NI TRES DIAS EN NINGUNA MORGE ESPERANDO , EL MUERTO SE MANDO HA INCINERAR COMO FUERON SUS DECEOS, PERO CIERTAS PERSONAS TOMARON POSECION DE SUS DERECHOS Y TRASLADARON LAS CENIZAS DEL DIFUNTO DE CIUDAD SIN EL CONCENTIMIENTO DEL DIFUNTO QUE HUBIERA SIDO UN ROTUNDO NOOOOO PERO CON Y PARA FINES DE LUCRO DECIDIERON ARMAR UN TEATRO ALREDEDOR DE LA MUERTE DE TAN DISTINGUIDO MAESTRO.
    QUIEN LO HAYA CONOCIDO Y HUBIERA MIRADO MAS ALLA DE LO QUE $$$ VALIA
    MUSICALMENTE, HUBIERAN CONOCIDO UN GRAN SER HUMANO, HUMILDE, SENCILLO, SUPER TIMIDO, CON UN MIEDO EXCENICO ATROZ, UN PROFECIONAL, QUE A PESAR DE SU GRANDEZA COMO MUSICO, SIEMPRE SE COMPORTO COMO UN FIEL SERVIDOR DE ARTE SIN ALTANERIA
    a un ano de su muerte DANIEL PONCE DESCANSA EN PAZ, Y A TODAS ESAS PERSONAS QUE HAN CREADO UN TEATRO DE MENTIRAS CON SU MUERTE, DIOS, DANIEL, Y EL CIELO SABEN EXACTAMENTE COMO VIVIO Y MURIO SUS ULTIMOS ANOS Daniel Ponce.,

    Atentamente
    Ukrania

  21. Paul Brad says:

    “Good morning;

    Today I just want to tell you a little of how it really happens;

    One year after Danel Ponce died, I had to stand and reply to all the lies that has been said about Daniel’s death.

    First of all Daniel Ponce died on the 10th of March 2013 the day of the Calle Ocho carnival one year ago, Daniel was not alone and did not spend 4 days alone ever since he left New York and came to seek refuge in this sunshine city with the woman who has always been by his side, including on the very day of his death.

    That lady is Ukrania Ramos – the person whose wishes it never occurred to anybody to even recognise or respect, be it Mrs Berna or any of the others who together with her created this day of lies and falsehood.

    The deceased was never abandoned, he died on his way out of his lady’s house, on the corner by his lady’s house, well dressed, well fed, well perfumed, content and satisfied, happy because it was carnival day, the deceased was not abandoned for 2 or 3 days, waiting in any morgue, the deceased was sent to be cremated in accordance with his wishes, but certain people took possession of his rights and transferred the ashes of the deceased out of the city without the consent of the deceased who would have strongly refused but, motivated by profit, they decided to create this drama around the death of the very distinguished maestro.

    Anyone who knew him and who would have looked beyond what he was worth $$$ musically, knew a great human being, humble, simple, super shy, with terrible stage fright, a professional, who in spite of his greatness as a musician, always behaved as a faithful servant of his art with no arrogance.

    One year on from the death of Daniel Ponce, may he rest in peace, and to all the people who have created this drama of lies about his death, God, Daniel and the Heavens know exactly how Daniel Ponce lived and died his last years.

    Sincerely,
    Ukrania

  22. Paul Brad says:

    Greetings…. For those people who don’t read Spanish I have included an English translation of Ukrania Ramos’ letter explaining what actually happened on both the day that Daniel Ponce tragically died from a heart attack and the period immediately after. I felt it was important to do this as I wrote the contentious initial story and am aggrieved that some of the pain and anger which ensued following the confusion that surrounded his passing remains undiminished. It has clearly been a very difficult and traumatic time for all his loved ones. A year on from Daniel Ponce’s passing one looks at the contributions here from his daughter…from Ukrania Ramos… from fellow musicians and fans of his music and we get a multi-dimensional picture of a powerful and complex man who as Paquito maintains “revolutionised Tumbadora” and during his life earned
    universal respect for his unquestionable artistry. The music and the memories live on. Daniel Ponce – May he now rest in peace.

  23. Quiero decir que fui una de las primeras personas en conocer a Daniel cuando llego a Nueva York. (Mucho antes que Verna Gillis u otros). Daniel toco varias veces conmigo en mi casa (yo en el piano, él en la tumbadora). Varias veces me llevo consigo cuando iba a retar a otros percusionistas, inclusive a Ralph McDonald, y esta en un documental que hice en 1991, titulado “Latin Jazz à New York” (en el que también esta otro tremendo conguero: Carlos “Patato” Valdés, y también los difuntos Chico O’Farrill y Tito Puente).

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