Pepe Danza in The Power of Rhythm Podcast
Occasionally Pepe has been called by the media “Extreme Multi-Instrumentalist” and the “Embodiment of World Music”. He is a musician, Zen practitioner and sound healer who’s been living within the Eastern Traditions of Daoism and Zen Buddhism for the last 40 years.
He dedicates his life to teaching Yoga, meditation and music internationally, and providing concerts where he combines various instruments from around the world to bring his audience transformative atmospheres and deep journeys through sound.
Pepe lives his life from the deep conviction and experience of the fact that Music is a powerful transformative force and he is ready to serve that Work in whatever way and whichever place he’s being called.

Enjoy our talk!

 

 

 „Breathe and listen. I think there is no mastery possible without a proper ability to take a full breath, because it’s really the breath that transforms into sound whatever you’re playing. You cannot play any instrument if you don’t know how to breathe.

– Pepe Danza

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Transcript of this Episode

REINHARD
From the stillness of Japanese shakuhachi to the absolutely ecstatic drum beats. From the wisdom of Zen Buddhism to the sensuality of sound experiences. My guest today embodies a unique spectrum of celebrating life. His message comes from the heart and his skills provide deep healing. Meet a remarkable man, meet Pepe Danza.

So, welcome to my Podcast. 

PEPE
Thank you Reinhard. What an honor and a joy to talk to you. 

REINHARD
When I saw you playing with Estas Tonne, I knew I had to talk to you. It’s a very special way you play the drum, a very special way you are playing the flute. That attracted me and then I found out all about your other background that is so amazing and that we will try to cover here, but let me actually go to my first question.
We are coming out of a series of a year’s lockdown and a lot of people around here, I would say are fearful, angry, depressed… Other people are like embarking, are kind of going really to a new way of living. Where do you see where the potential of the current times we’re living in lies? And, are we ready to shift to a higher frequency?

PEPE
You know, my background is more rooted in Zen and in Taoism and we do not project into the future at all. We just live in this moment and trust life to move towards where it has to go. We try to avoid any adjectives of any kind: good weather, bad weather, good life, bad life… it is what it is. 

REINHARD
Right. 

PEPE
I do feel very much in my heart that this is a golden opportunity. But there’s so much talk about this being a special time for us, about transformation… and if we look at history, humanity has gone through this hundreds of times and unfortunately we’re so stupid, we don’t seem to learn from experience. And the solutions are so simple. Just open our hearts to each other and seek the experience of oneness which is the underlying reality of everything. So yes, this is a golden opportunity, and no, I don’t know if humanity is going to take advantage of it and really transform itself. I pray for that and I think music is a really fundamental element in that transformation. So I’m putting my drops in the bucket and hoping that it does spread, but there’s no expectation.

REINHARD
What’s so interesting is that right now it’s the first time that more than 8 billion people on the planet are sharing that kind of experience, where it’s really getting in two directions: one are getting really fearful and others really getting up. It’s so many people at the same time on this planet doing this process… that’s very interesting I would say. 

PEPE
It is a golden opportunity for experiencing the oneness and our connectivity, our interconnectedness. It’s a golden opportunity! But like I say, I love humanity but I don’t have a great, deep trust in the collective to really see into this amazing opportunity and not follow the fear energy and the separation energy that are being constantly fed. 
Now it’s the vaccinated against the unvaccinated. Hate against the Chinese… Oh my god! It’s painful. And also the use of substances to deaden the pain. You go to Netflix and in any Hollywood movie as soon as something goes wrong, the whiskey goes in, the drugs go in. It’s like, “guys, just breathe and feel.” 

REINHARD
Isn’t that the moment for people like you and me to help people? I mean, to be there for people when they’re desperate and instead of taking substance maybe have a sound journey, or have a rhythm journey. 

PEPE
Yeah! Well, I come from teaching a meditation workshop. Nobody really knows me around here. But I talked to people that were very focused and very grateful. It’s so nice to be able to share that “drop by drop”. 

REINHARD
Where are you right now, Pepe? 

PEPE
I’m in Prague, my favorite city in the world. I love Prague.

REINHARD
You were born in Uruguay, correct?

PEPE
Correct 

REINHARD
And you live in Israel?

PEPE
I don’t know where I live but I just came out of six years in Israel and now I am in Slovakia. 

REINHARD
You live there now? 

PEPE
I live in Slovakia right now, yes. 

REINHARD
What was the place on the planet that kind of gave you the most “yes” feeling? 

PEPE
Brazil, India, Japan, for very different reasons. 

REINHARD
Wow, Brazil is very much true for me too. 

PEPE
Brazil is the body and the groove, the celebration and the abundance. India is like deep deep spirit and Japan is the samurai, “do it now or never.”

REINHARD
So you’re not only a drummer, you’re a multi-instrumentalist with a really deep connection to shakuhachi, to a flute I could not even get a sound out of. You state that music is a powerful transformative force so, if someone says “How can I get there? I’m nowhere, I didn’t have any musical training but I am craving for having music in my life for growth.” What would you tell this human being? 

PEPE
Breathe and listen, breathe and listen. I think there is no mastery possible without a proper ability to take a full breath, because it’s really the breath that transforms into sound whatever you’re playing. You cannot play any instrument if you don’t know how to breathe. I played with so many professional musicians and many times I got like, “this person is not listening.” It’s like an amazing thing. 
So once you have your breath and you have your ability to listen, the ability to play an instrument will come so much more naturally and easily. But then again, the other element is tremendous discipline. My philosophy has always been that I need to serve Spirit through sound and that my only real duty is to perfect my technique so that Spirit can speak without technical limitations through me. So technique on the one side, and on the other side, like really learning how to get out of the way so Spirit can speak through me. So here you have technique and really discipline and meditation, so we can quiet ourselves and receive… yeah, I don’t know what you would call it… a higher vibration that goes through you rather than thinking what scale to play for this or that chord.

REINHARD
That’s a very practical approach. It’s great. 
One thing that people are not so much used to it is discipline. It has kind of a negative connotation. Not at all for me, of course, but maybe through the school it has gone into this place where people think “oh, I have to do it again…” How would you, with your wisdom again, advise someone to override this old conditioning and get the groovy thing out of discipline? 

PEPE
Well, I tell my students don’t ever play exercises. Just play music and listen to what you’re playing. So if you’re a guitar player playing your c major scale, play that c major scale… it’s intervals are  magical. I mean, think about what it takes in the history of humanity to really have the mastery of sound and invent these instruments that you were able to figure out how to enjoy. And now you’re sitting down with this instrument and it’s your expression through sound.
Don’t take it as a duty, don’t take it as an exercise, as the boring thing, just savor every note. Savor every note and really feel the relationship of notes. So the bottom line: don’t play exercises, play music and be listening to what you do at all times.
For me personally it’s like a religion. Sound is creation, creation is god or whatever it is you want to call it. So there’s a devotional sense and if you bring into your practice that devotional sense and that open-heartedness and open-ear, it’s effortless. And the more you do it the more you go into it. Once I started playing shakuhachi, it was in the forest, and I thought, “okay, i’ll do half hour or one hour of practice.” I finished and looked at the watch. I had been playing for four hours, non-stop. So don’t take it as a duty and forget about the clock. “Oh yeah, from nine to one I have to practice…” No, you don’t have to do anything. Solo follow your heart. 10 minutes a day is much better than five hours on Sundays. Just put the drop there. And the energy of love and devotion has to be there all the time. 
And the spirit of service. I mean, we all started music to get the girls and get the attention of love and slowly we realized, “hey, I can really affect an atmosphere that can actually transform people.” And that is so much more! 

REINHARD
In other words, back to the groove, as one of the titles of your albums is. Now, I want to play it for our listeners, okay?

PEPE
Yes, thanks Reinhard 

Back to the Groove by Pepe Danza sounds.

REINHARD
Is this all you? 

PEPE
This is all me and my living room, yes. 

REINHARD
A lot of kalimbas are in it, right? 

PEPE
A lot of kalimbas played with the mallets and spanish guitar and electric guitar and a bit of bass. The flute is an Indian flute called bansuri. But I’m playing it in the fula African style, it’s a different technique. 

REINHARD
Incredible. The question that comes to my mind now is: by having as many tools as you have, when you are teaching a class, when there’s a workshop, how do you start? Do you start with meditation? Do you leave it up to what comes? Do you start with drums? 

PEPE
Usually when I teach, I teach a specific thing. They asked me to teach djembe or to teach guitar… But yeah, some African drummers used to laugh at me because they go to my class and I always start with meditation and it’s like “what is this?”
I always tell my students that, as a percussionist, the most important thing you do is what you don’t do. It’s the space between the notes, the spaciousness. I call it the architecture of silence. Basically we’re architects of silence and the important thing is that that silence permeates what we do. 

REINHARD
It’s amazing. For me it’s like a family of space lovers. You and also the same thing when I was talking with Estas, the same when I was talking with Kabeçao. We are all so fond of space. I even composed an orchestra piece called Space beyond Space.

PEPE
I’d love to hear that. 

REINHARD
You will hear a little bit of it in the end. I asked myself, “space, what is really space?” 

PEPE
Well, in shakuhachi training the space between the notes actually has a name. They call it “ma”. And the ma is the quality of silence. The note kind of dies very gently and disappears into silence. The quality of that silence in Japan is called “ma.” And when you train with your teacher, your teacher is listening more to your silence than to what you’re actually playing. It’s an amazing thing. It’s a fundamental concept.

REINHARD
We should bring this to our western music academies and conservatoires. 

PEPE
It’s like, “your playing is okay, but your silence…” 

Laughters

REINHARD
You’ve been like three years in Japan studying shakuhachi, right?
Could you briefly say what the shakuhachi flute gave you? 

PEPE
It would be much easier to tell you what it didn’t give me. Psychologically it’s really my master. I’ve had amazing teachers in my life but I have learned so much about myself and breathing, and my body from the shakuhachi… It’s the oneness, the inner silence, the chi, the energy, the breath. 
The shakuhachi is almost like a spirit. You grab it to play it and sometimes you’re gonna go like “you think you’re gonna play me now? You’re kidding. Sit down, shut up and breathe before you touch me.” I’ve heard of master players, a friend of mine, who for almost a year could not get a sound out of the flute. It’s like you need to really experience this integration of body, spirit and mind and get this “chi” out through the bamboo in a very natural way. So it’s a profound training. 
We have in shakuhachi something called “robuki”. “Ro” is the first note when all the holes are closed. That’s the name of the note. And “buki” is like a meditation practice. So all we do is just play one note for 10, 15 minutes, half an hour. Breathe and play this one note. I always tell my students that sometimes my teacher would stop me saying, “No. Your whole life, in one note.” And eventually I learned what it means to put your whole life in one note. Nowadays there’s so many amazing virtuosic young players… But it’s like, “I want to hear that one note.”

REINHARD
Well this is actually the thing that I would like to see so much more in all the music education; that it’s body centered, it’s mindset, it’s emotion centered. It’s kind of not the “one i a na, two i a na…” because it’s just coming out of your thinking. So that brings me also to a question. You said “back to groove”. There is a person who has not played an instrument and it’s a kind of unmusical person. How would you explain to this person what groove is?

PEPE
I would say walk, just walk. I do that sometimes with students that say they have no rhythm. Walk from this wall to that wall. Breathe and walk. I actually had that lesson very early in my life and this teacher kept saying, “no, no, no, again.” It was a gym so it’s a long distance. I walked until I just felt this thing. So he came and he said, “Aha, okay, now you’re walking. If you can walk you can dance. If you can dance you gotta groove. Your breathing is groovy, your heart is groovy.” And so it all comes down to getting rid of blocks rather than acquiring anything. It’s very psychological and it’s also about discipline. 

I do have a student for instance that the first time he came to me I thought, “oh my god, what am I going to do with this person?” He’s been five years with me working hard and he’s almost a professional musician now…from not even being able to recognize anything, impossible to play a groove. Just discipline, love, dedication. Just don’t give up, don’t give up. It’s worth it.

REINHARD
And also you seemingly had very good teachers and we were all blessed with good teachers. Now, in your age and in my age also, it’s time to step and give what we have perceived from so many people to others. 

PEPE
One of my teachers, Trichy Sankara, he would play and you would see shiva dancing! An amazing thing. It’s very inspiring to have the right teacher. 

REINHARD
Before we go further on let’s hear a little bit of your shakuhachi playing on “Eastern Gate.” Can you explain a little bit what Eastern Gate means? 

PEPE
I planned this album as a kind of a synthesis of all my influences. So the east gate is mostly eastern music, the western gate I brought the electric guitar and a little more psychedelia, the southern gate is more the African and Latin and the northern gate is more the shamanic. All these influences are part of my life. So I thought it would be good to do an album that has all of that.

REINHARD
Makes a lot of sense. So this is “Eastern Gate.”

Eastern Gate by Pepe Danza sounds

When Nikola Tesla was asked about how we can approach the Universe and the wisdom of the Universe, he said “don’t think further than energy, vibration and pulsation.” So my question is about what your take on these very primordial expressions of rhythm and sound is. Because it’s the same. If it’s slow, it’s a pulse. If it’s fast, it’s a frequency and a tone. And if it’s even faster it’s other kind of manifestation.

PEPE
Again, from a Zen perspective we don’t really deal with concepts. The concept is something that’s up here. We deal with the experience of something and to reach that experience, it’s exactly what I was describing before: technique and meditation. Bring those two together, breathe through, play the instrument in a state of meditation and you will understand that concept completely non-conceptually. Good luck to even explain it, right? But I actually have very little explanation for my students. I explain to them that most of us live in horizontal time and in horizontal time you have past and future and there is no present, because it’s constantly moving. The moment I say “now” it’s already gone. So through the practice you attain what I call vertical time. And vertical time goes through horizontal time but there is nothing but now, nowness. Nothing but now. You get this very expansive feeling of the eternal quality of the now, and music, and particularly rhythm, but in shakuhachi also, you find such a gateway into that state.

REINHARD
You have a project that’s called Ocean of Sound and you have a lot of instruments around you. Do you have them with you in Prague now? I mean, do you travel with them around the globe?

PEPE
I do. It’s a nightmare. 

Laughters

REINHARD
So what is exactly the idea behind that Ocean of Sound? 

PEPE
Well, you and I are pretty much the same generation. I’m 65 now and I grew up in a psychedelic era. My heroes were Pink Floyd and later on the progressive, the prog rock. So my love is improvisation and instrumental music. I’m not very friendly with words because I find that words put me in the mind whereas instrumental music is open. I’m also very fun, being from that generation, about music as a journey. So my pieces are… I mean a short piece of mine is 15 minutes long, it’s 20 minutes, 30 minutes. So you can really dig in. And in Ocean of Sound I have several sections that all interconnect with each other. So it’s about two and a half hours non-stop music. I discourage people from applause you know. A friend and student of mine said “it’s not a performance, it’s a prayer-formance.” I like that.

REINHARD
So is it in a workshop or is it a separate thing? 

PEPE
That’s my concert. 

REINHARD
Oh, wow. I think the listeners will be very curious about how that sounds. With your permission, I play a little bit of that.

Ocean of Sound by Pepe Danza sounds.

When I saw you playing with Estas Tonne, I saw you have a very special drum set that you also use in other occasions, with two mallets and djembe. How did this come about? How can a drummer find his creative setting? There’s a creative setting you play here! 

PEPE
You hear the sounds inside yourself. I had a teacher that gave me the golden key. He said: “If you can’t hear it, you can’t play it. If you can’t sing it, you won’t play it.” So the sound has to be first and foremost inside of you and then you get a very clear idea of what external tools you need to make that sound happen. I hear percussion and this is something that I really encourage my students to explore, not as rhythm but as music. I hear melodies and the djembe and tones and overtones you know. I encourage my students to really listen to it as music.
And so since I was playing with Estas I thought it would be really interesting to also provide kind of like a bass guitar basset to it. So I actually tuned my drums very precisely because he plays in very precise key. In A, E, this open guitar keys. So I tune my congas so I can play melodies to it. And then I have all kinds of sticks and mallets and brushes so I can get every kind of sound. I also use a piece of wood with a microphone that you step on as my kick drum. I can travel with it. It has a huge sound when you put it into the sound system. And then I put African anklets. So I have my hi-hat, my kick drum, my melodic setup and I love cymbals, I just love cymbals. So I have two or three cymbals and I have what is called a wave drum that gives me some electronic sounds, really cool sounds. It is an electronic sampler drum that has about 100 sounds, some very natural, some very psychedelic. So I can bring that type of electronica also in. 

REINHARD
What are the two drums that you play with your sticks? 

PEPE
One is the wave drum that has deep sounds and the other is a floor tom that sounds very low for the shamanic feel. So basically the setup is: I’m sitting on the cajón, I have a djembe between my legs, two or three congas, floor tom, wave drum, the kick drum and my anklet. Full sound. 

REINHARD
There’s a funny saying: He’s not just a drummer, he’s a musician.

Laughters

I really love how you play with Estas and maybe we have a little taste of that.

Pepe Danza performing with Estas Tonne sounds

Really grooving along.
The djembe that you play, what is it? A Remo djembe? 

PEPE
It’s what I can travel with. So it’s one of those that’s like paper weight Remo drums. But it has a natural skin and I managed to put some tape inside to kind of mute it a bit and I got the sound that I needed. 

REINHARD
Sounds nice! Sounds really good.

PEPE
Yes. The rest of the drums are usually provided in each concert so I never know what’s coming. But Estas plays in really high-class theaters so usually the equipment is really good. 

REINHARD
Where did you actually study the Djembe? 

PEPE
I lived in Canada for 25 years, in Vancouver. There are many many master drummers there. I had a good trick. Since I’m a good musician, I thought “why pay to learn?” So I put together a band with master drummers called the Drum Prayers and I learned while rehearsing. I had an African drummer, a Latino drummer, a master from Philippines that he played incredible Salsa… And I was like, “okay, so let’s play a traditional rhythm from Cuba” and naturally I would learn from them. It was a fantastic experience and it was a really good band. We had good times. And then I met Trichy Sankaran, which is my guru. He is South Indian kanjira and mridangam player. And that’s the golden key to rhythm. South Indian rhythm… It’s mind blowing.

REINHARD
It is!

PEPE
You might have heard in Back to the Groove how these patterns dance… also very much influenced by Steve Reich you know. I listened to Steve Reich to no end I saw him live in Amsterdam. I love that dance of patterns and that extended realization of a groove. Amazing stuff.

REINHARD
So let’s finally go to something we both love. Brazil! What did you explore, learn and exchange there? 

PEPE
You know, being Uruguayan we are tremendously influenced by the Brazilian culture. So I grew up listening to bossa nova, Brazilian music. So as soon as I could stick my thumb out I was hitchhiking to Brazil, reading and learning and playing and jamming. That was not only musically but spiritually also. The Candomblé music, Yemanjá and all these beautiful devotional songs to the actual elements really influenced me. Then, after 15 years in Canada, I applied for a grant and the Canadian Government gave me a grant to travel to Uruguay and Brazil to study Candomblé and Candombe and bring this culture to Canada and teach it there. So I spent two months traveling all the way from Bahia to Montevideo and really experiencing everything because I was sponsored, so to speak, and I didn’t have to look at the money issue at all.
The Candomblé music is really part of my heart. This idea that the elements are alive in the form of consciousness and that through sound we can bring this elemental forces inside of us to serve the community is so beautiful. So I teach a lot of these chants and these rhythms. The idea that Yemanjá is the ocean and she has a specific rhythm, specific songs, the color, and we all get into this entrainment energy and in prayer… for me that’s poetry. 

REINHARD
It absolutely is. Have you ever been initiated into Candomblé? 

PEPE
I’ve been told that I’m a son of Yemanyá. I drummed in the ceremonies because that friend that took me to Brazil through that grant was a master a capoeira. So I was not initiated but I was allowed in, actually playing the drums for the ceremony. It was a big experience. I really didn’t want to be initiated because I have so many… I’m a Buddhist, I’m a Taoist, I practice yoga, I play Candombé…So I I’m not a joiner in any way. Not that I have anything against that… we all have our own path. But I’m more of a salad kind of guy. 

REINHARD
I can congratulate you because it’s very difficult to bring so many different, almost opposing, things together. And for me it’s very authentic how you do it. 

PEPE
Thank you. Well, I started when I was seven and I’m 65, so I’ve had lots of time.

REINHARD
So my dear one. I thank you so much for your time. 

PEPE
I thank you brother! Such a pleasure!

REINHARD
And where can people find you on the net?

PEPE
People can find me on www.pepedanza.com and if you go to band camp and look for Pepe Danza, I have about 20 extended journeys there and albums. And of course all over youtube and with Estas Tonne, etc. I’m not great on on promoting myself. Im one of those typical musicians that just want to play music. 

Space beyond Space by Reinhard Flatischler and Johnny Bertl sounds in the background.

REINHARD
That’s one of my orchestra pieces. A little part of Space beyond Space.

PEPE
Is it on YouTube or Apple? 

REINHARD
Yes. If you go to YouTube, put my name and Space beyond Space you get it. 
Pepe, you’re very close here. If you ever come across the border here please…

PEPE
Not ever but when! 

REINHARD
To my listeners, I hope you enjoyed our talk with the wonderful Pepe Danza, a very unique person. If you like the podcast leave comments, tell me whom else you want me to interview. For now, have a great day, have a great time and keep on grooving.

 

 

 

Please leave a comment below, and let me know what you think!
I’m curious about your sharings, thoughts and feedback.

Thanks, Reinhard

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