Bending Space, Time and Genres: an Interview with Helen De La Rosa

John Bonham, Neil Peart, Questlove. What do all of these legendary drummers have in common? Perhaps it is not just their technical repertoire, but their ability to bend between nuances in genre and tempo. The best drummers draw on inspiration from an array of musical styles to give their songs that human touch that electronic instruments can only hope to match. One contemporary drummer who has created a new beat for career thanks in part to her rich experiences performing and collaborating across the globe is Helen De La Rosa. As a emotionally provoking performer, Rosa has been able to collaborate with the likes of Grammy Award winning artists and has additionally recorded for artists under Atlantic Records. We had the opportunity to ask De La Rosa about the intricacies of being a professional drummer in the 21st century, and learn about some of her most compelling performances.


Given your Dominican background, what was your experience like while in New Delhi and Mumbai teaching master classes as well as performing?

Rosa: Interesting enough, while growing up in Dominican Republic, everyone told me I looked Indian and when I went to India, everyone thought I was Indian too. So from the start, India was a very special experience for me as a Dominican. We felt an immediate connection not only because I looked familiar to them but also due to how similar our struggles are to achieve success in the music industry. My Dominican background enabled me to understand them better, which made the masterclasses incredibly productive and fruitful. We could discuss not only how to be a better drummer or musician, but real ways and tools that they can access nowadays that would help them achieve their goals, whether it was to, for instance, study at Berklee College of Music or to be a worldwide recognized musician.

As a musician, do you find it easy to transcend any differences in language or culture through your music?

Rosa: Absolutely yes! That is one of the most beautiful aspects that music has, it transcends pretty much everything that defines or divides human beings. I’ve seen how people write to me from all over the world, telling me how much they love my music or how it changed them or how it inspires them, and I don’t even know them personally. Music actually becomes richer and develops more when different cultures collide.

What would you personally consider to be your most ambitious performances or music-related endeavors throughout your worldly career?

Rosa: There are so many experiences I could share with you, but I think this one is worth mentioning here — The Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller and Steve Bailey concert at JEN (Jazz Education Network) 2018. Not only are they multiple times Grammy award winners, but they are also among the best and most influential bassists of all time. I had previously performed in several occasions with Victor Wooten and Steve Bailey, but I actually met Marcus at the one rehearsal we had the same day of the performance. I consider this one as one of my most ambitious performances because I had to support these three legendary bassists at the same time, each with his own time feel, style and sound. I had to immediately know who was soloing, who was doing the harmony part and who had the bass role, so I could lock in with them and adapt my own time feel to theirs. On top of that, we were performing at the biggest concert hall at JEN, which was completely full of the best jazz musicians in the country and arguably, in the world. It was an amazing experience.

You have worked and collaborated with some pretty big and respected names in music, like Victor Wooten and Susan Rogers, just to name a couple. Out of all those whom you have collaborated with, which instances stick out to you as being the most notable? Did you learn anything particularly useful in regard to furthering your career as a musician?

Rosa: One that sticks out was the album debut concert of Jae Deal’s first studio album, “Colour Collection.” For many years Jae has been working with artists including Janet Jackson, Jay-Z, Lady Gaga, Snoop Dogg, Diddy, Ne-Yo, Faith Evans, T-Pain, Jessica Simpson, Jill Scott, Elton John and many more. But never in the history of his career had he put out his own music, which made this concert really especial. I learned a lot from this experience because this particular album is continuous, meaning it’s not divided in individual tracks or songs, it’s an evolving piece of music which has many different grooves and vibes. It was challenging to interpret the grooves the right way and also to remember everything with very little time of preparation, and was a very valuable lesson indeed. Additionally, this helped my career a lot because of the experience of dealing with tracks and follow complicated cues, and enabled me to tackle basically any kind of backing track they can throw at me. It was truly an amazing experience in which I could also meet and work with many amazing musicians, including the Regiment Horns, a highly celebrated horn section who have worked with Meghan Trainor, Coldplay, Tori Kelly, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, Stevie Wonder and others.

As a drummer for Atlantic Records’ artist MILCK, can you tell us about any interesting projects you are either currently working on or have planned later in 2018?

Rosa: We’ll be having several concerts throughout the year and also we’ll be opening for another artist on a tour, which I can’t reveal the name yet. But yeah, be on the look out!

What qualities, characteristics, or technical skills distinguish yourself from other drummers in such a creatively competitive and subjective field?

Rosa: The more drummers I meet throughout my career, the more I realize how different my approach to drums is in comparison; I was actually very surprised by how different it is. While most drummers focus on being agile, learning new techniques or learning the toughest “chops,” I’ve always been focused on the music as a whole and this has been my passion since day one. I do things that most drummers think is odd, such as listening and transcribing more piano players, bass players or guitar players than drummers. I’m driven by the feeling that those different perspectives give me and I’m fascinated by how much power the drum set has to support what they do. I’ve seen how other musicians notice my strive to play exactly what the music needs and immediately can tell the difference it makes in their music. In short, my focus is not to play chops but when to play them. That’s what differentiates me.

How did it feel to receive over a million views for the video of the drum set duo you wrote for Berklee’s marketing department? Did you receive any positive responses from those who saw it?

Rosa: It felt incredible! Yogev Gabay and me worked really hard on a drum set duo consisting of two drummers working as one. I’m really glad so many people saw it and shared it. But what surprised me the most was how many people actually wanted to perform it in colleges or even concerts! So it became a statement in the drummer community throughout the world. Everyone was talking about it at the drum festivals or at important conventions such as NAMM. Many people actually approached me while I was walking at NAMM, asking me for the charts for the “popcorn” drum set duo. What started as a creative and fun idea became an important occurrence in the percussion world that pushed the envelope of different possibilities using two drum sets.

Given that you have performed in the US, Spain, and India as well as multiple other countries, what are some of the biggest challenges of touring that you have to overcome as a musician that fans/audiences may not think about?

Rosa: I don’t think audiences in general truly understand what it takes to play a whole concert, both mentally and physically. A good musician gives it all on stage! Every single part of who you are is invested on expressing emotions and ideas through your instrument. It takes a complex combination of skill, focus, letting go and expression every single time you’re performing. Doing that every night of the week is really heavy on your body and mind. That’s why it’s very common for musicians to get sick while touring. I think is very challenging to overcome all that exhaustion and/or any emotional distress in order to give the audience what they’re expecting and still maintain a somewhat healthy balance.

How do you approach and juggle the responsibilities of not only playing the drums for a song or album, but handling the recording, producing and mixing as well like you did for your band Amalur? This seems like it would not be an easy task to accomplish.

Rosa: It’s not easy indeed, although I find it very enjoyable! They way I approach the juggle of all those different processes is by keeping in mind every process during each process. What that means is that, for instance, when I’m recording, I’m thinking about the appropriate tuning of my drums, cymbal selection and miccing that would go better with the specific production goal on that track; while performing, I’m simultaneously adapting my playing to the specific mixing route I want to achieve on that specific tune in any given moment. With Amalur it was particularly challenging because our music is a highly improvisational, rhythmically complex and very interactive, so on top of all that I had to focus on the creative side of it way more at the same time.

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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