cachao's everlasting inventions

I was saddened to hear of the passing of one of the great bassists and true innovators of modern music, Israel "Cachao" López, at 89. You can find an obit by Enrique Fernandez, from the Miami Herald here And here's a column I did for the April issue of Jazziz that talks about some seminal tracks.

JAZZIZ Blu Notes/ April 2008

By Larry Blumenfeld

Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés once recalled for me his first meeting with the bassist known as Cachao, in Havana. "Were both wearing short pants then," he said, before making a deeper point: "Cuban music had timing, but no syncopation before Cachao."

I know what Valdés meant: Cachao transformed the bass tumbao -- the bassline that both anchors and propels the music, and which is commonly referred to as the "glue" that binds montunos (repeated musical phrases) with clavé-based grooves. In the bass tumbao, more than one Cuban musicologist has said, beats the heart of the song. And no one plays it, feels it, like Cachao.

Cachao's brother Orestes, a pianist, says that Cachao's innovation inspired his own 1937 composition "Mambo," which crystallized a transformation of a then-popular Cuban danzón style, and ignited a dance revolution within and outside Cuba. And like Valdés, who played in the earliest recorded Cuban descargas (loose-limbed, jazz-inflected jam sessions), Cachao was instrumental to this phase of Afro Cuban jazz development, too.

Descargas: The Havana Sessions (Yemaya), gathers all of Cacao's legendary jam sessions, recorded between 1957 and 1961, along with other seminal tracks, in two discs that you would previously have had to assemble from five different recordings, if you were lucky enough to find them. It's two-and-a-half hours of driving, swinging, sweet, hot, improvised music, full of jazz ingenuity and Afro Cuban dance-music thrust. It comes at you in 39 tracks, each like its own wave, most of which are no more than three minutes long ("Descargas in Miniatura" the title of Cachao's original Cuban release of this material, refers to its song-like condensations of late-night improvisations that would typically linger far longer).

Born in Havana on September 14, 1918, Israel "Cachao" López was the youngest child in a family full of accomplished musicians. By age nine, Cachao was playing for silent films. At 12, he joined the Havana Philharmonic. In his teens, along with Orestes, Cachao joined Orquestra Arcaño y sus Maravillas, a dance band that had begun to take the danzón style, known for its emphasis on violin, brass, and timpani drums, into a more percussive, African-inspired direction. Cachao and Orestes are said to have composed literally 2,000 tunes in this new style -- as prolific as, say, Ellington was within the swing idiom. "Mambo" marked the moment this new wrinkle developed into a movement all its own. But the descargas on the new discs are a different thing -- defining moments of a Cuban musical evolution that is closely intertwined with and yet clearly distinct from what went on in the United States.

"We all invented the descarga," says conga player Tata Guines in the CD notes, "all of us who met in the small hours of the night to improvise. And improvisation takes you to jazz -- jazz in a Cuban way which has nothing to do with the jazz they do over there on the other side, although it has a little swing and some bebop. We were Cuban musicians, playing Cuban music with the spirit of jazz."

Cachao left Cuba for good in 1962, after Castro took power. He headlined in New York and in Las Vegas. But longing to be among other Cuban émigrés, he moved to Miami, where he languished for a while; in the 1980s, he could be found playing weddings. All that changed in the 1990s. With the help of actor Andy Garcia and producer Emilio Estefan, he found himself the subject of an acclaimed documentary and a Grammy-Award winner (for 1994's Master Sessions). At 89, Cachao still lays down a tumbao with authority and invention, still plucks, slaps and bows his strings to ignite fellow musicians and anyone who cares to dance.

The story told by his descargas seems especially poignant to me just now. Last November, I added my name to the hundreds of musicians, writers, and arts administrators on a petition asking for an end the political ban between U.S. and Cuban artists ( A brief relaxation of the embargo during the Clinton administration made for something of a Cuban-music boom in this country (Cachao's resurgent career here owed in part to all that); but the Bush administration shut that window tight.

"Let us work together so that Cuban artists can take their talent to the United States," wrote Alicia Alonso, director of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, in a letter that sparked the petition, "so that a song, a book, a scientific study or a choreographic work are not considered, in an irrational way, a crime."

The reissue of Cachao's Descargas preserves a shared history. If only our common future could be so well assured.

March 22, 2008 3:18 PM |


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