By Rebecca Mauleón | March, 2008
The King of Mambo experiences a career revival—at age 89!
In the face of the music industry’s upheaval, one great innovator continues to flourish: bassist and composer Israel “Cachao” López, who at 89 is experiencing his latest career revival.
Throughout his eight-decade career, Cachao has been a driving force in the evolution of Cuban popular music, and he continues to treat audiences around the globe to its scintillating sounds.
Cachao approaches 90 with grace, wonderful memories, and a legacy of musical achievements. His pioneering efforts transformed Cuba’s national dance, known as the danzón, into one of the world’s most recognized forms—the mambo—and his seminal recordings of the Cuban jam sessions known as descargas paved the way for generations of artists who would be inspired to follow in his enormous footsteps. While he would wait until his mid 70s to receive the international acclaim he deserves (due in part to the efforts of actor/producer Andy García), his legacy as one of the world’s musical treasures is clear.
Born in 1918 in Havana, Israel “Cachao” López comes from a large musical family boasting over 30 bass players. He made his professional debut at age 13 with the Havana Symphony Orchestra before joining some of Cuba’s most popular dance orchestras, including that of flutist Antonio Arcaño in 1937. During the 30 years he worked as a musician in Cuba, Cachao played with some of the world’s most celebrated symphony orchestras, including the Philadelphia Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. During his stint with Arcaño y Sus Maravillas, Cachao—along with brother Orestes, a noted cellist, bassist, pianist, and composer—began arranging and composing danzones for the group. This seminal orchestra preserved the tradition of performing for many of Cuba’s elite social clubs, including the now-infamous Buena Vista Social Club (popularized in the film of the same name). Cachao was commissioned to write Buena Vista’s trademark danzón in 1939, and he and his brother were commissioned to compose thousands of pieces for the numerous clubs throughout Havana and surrounding cities.
“Playing during those years was a very segregated experience,” Cachao remembers. “There were both black and white social clubs. But on the occasion when we would perform outdoors, there would be a rope in front of the stage to divide the street: one side for whites and the other for blacks. Imagine that! They were there all together, dancing to the same music!” Incidentally, the musicians in Arcaño’s band were integrated, but apparently the social clubs weren’t ready for that.
From Danzón To Mambo
The danzón, the descendant of European-derived court dances and Creole innovations, emerged in the late 19th century as a courtship dance for elite society. As a through-composed instrumental form in ritornello (or rondo) form, the danzón experienced a gradual transformation as it began to expand. But by the late 1930s Cachao and Orestes were convinced the form needed modernizing, and they began to add improvisational elements to the danzón, which later spawned the birth of the mambo. At first known as nuevo ritmo (new rhythm), the López brothers’ innovation introduced an additional section that contained repetitive elements at the heart of Cuba’s popular dance music, the son.
The crucial ostinato structure of the son allowed the musicians to open things up, providing a steady vamp at the end of the danzón for improvisation, usually over the dominant chord. The result not only led to a more musically dynamic style, it compelled dancers to react by changing their steps to match the new rhythm. “This was the era of the syncopated beat,” Cachao remembers. “We musicians began experimenting with that, and the dancers reacted instantly!” In time, we would know this new dance as the cha-cha-cha, but meanwhile, the future of the danzón was sealed, and the word “mambo” was born. The term would certainly undergo several transformations, including the jazz-band experimentations of Cuban pianist and bandleader Dámaso Pérez Prado, but the López brothers are its true founding fathers. “Prado always said he really didn’t know the meaning of ‘mambo,’ but he certainly used it a lot!” Cachao laughs. The word has roots in the Congolese Bantú language, still spoken within the Afro-Cuban spiritual and cultural communities today on the island. Its meaning implies the act of singing or storytelling, and Cachao notes that this was why the name was so significant in Afro-Cuban culture. Orestes’s 1938 danzón simply titled “Mambo” (with Cachao’s arrangement) would be the first popular and commercial use of the word for Cuban audiences. From that point onward, all Cuban danzones would be referred to with the term danzón-mambo to reflect the genre’s dramatic transformation.
At the heart of what Cachao represents as a bassist is the driving force of all popular salsa and Latin jazz music: the Cuban son, and specifically, the repetitive, syncopated bass line known as the tumbao. Cuban music is notorious for its captivating rhythm, much of which can be elusive to the jazz or classical player. The concept of providing a rhythmical foundation in an ensemble that is almost entirely syncopated can be challenging to newcomers, especially for bassists who have spent years walking four beats to the bar. The essential difference has to do with the intense polyrhythm in the Afro-Cuban tradition. The combination of highly syncopated tumbao patterns wrapped around a two-bar or four-bar ostinato pattern—known as the montuno—combined with the ever-present Cuban clave rhythm, serve as the backbone of virtually all Cuban dance music. This is the foundation that paved the way for the evolution of the modern “Latin” styles we hear today.
The Descarga Legacy
In the late 1950s, Cachao began recording a series of albums with other noted Cuban popular and jazz musicians in the jam-session-oriented descarga genre. “There were many of us from different bands, even different genres, making these recordings. After hours, everyone would gather in the studio coming in from our respective gigs—some in the cabarets such as the Tropicana—and someone would plop a bottle of rum on a table and push the record button. It was history in the making!” Drawing from the wealth of Cuba’s popular rhythms such as the son-montuno, conga, mambo, guaracha, cha-cha-cha, and many other styles, Cachao’s Descargas en Miniature and other albums celebrated the music’s highly improvisational nature within the simplest settings. For many aspiring Latin musicians, these recordings came to be the blueprint for Cuban rhythm study. The two- to three-minute gems on Miniature display a brilliance, passion, and spontaneity rarely captured in a studio recording, and the fact that the tracks were essentially unrehearsed testifies to the extraordinary musicianship of the players who graced those Havana recording studios. Descargas en Miniature has been the Cuban music bible for anyone playing or studying this music.
In 1962 Cachao made the difficult decision to leave Cuba. He traveled to Spain where he worked with a group known as Sabor Cubano (Cuban flavor) under the direction of Ernesto Duarte. “We worked all over the country. It was beautiful, and I felt totally welcome.” But his loving wife, Buenaventura (they married in 1946), had already joined family in New Jersey, and he longed to reunite with her. Cachao arrived in New York in late 1963 and began his prolific journey with a cast of Latin music giants. By the time he established himself in New York, virtually all of the top figures in Latin music were exploring the Latin big-band sound as well as the descarga concept, and Cachao was probably the most in-demand bassist on those classic New York sessions. From his sideman work with everyone from Tito Rodríguez, Machito, Tito Puente, the Alegre All-Stars, Chico O’Farrill, José Fajardo, and Charlie and Eddie Palmieri, Cachao’s rhythmically powerful and melodic bass playing set the standard for many future players. “I remember one time Tito Puente and I formed this duet—just me playing bass and singing and Tito playing timbales and putting on a show. He was a great dancer. People loved it! Another time we got this little gig in Jersey with Candito on congas and singer Miguelito Valdés, but I was still working with Tito Rodríguez and Machito’s big bands at the time, so I had to be careful not to ruffle any feathers.” The well-known rivalry between the “Two Titos” in particular was a tricky subject for sidemen navigating between the Latin giants.
Cachao later spent several years in Las Vegas, much of that time performing alongside ringing slot machines in venues such as Caesar’s Palace, The Dunes, The Plaza, and others. “I had consistent work with Pupy Campo, even though attendance was pretty bad. People were there to play the slots, so no one really paid attention. Campo even titled the show ‘El Padre del Trueno’ [the father of thunder], but it wasn’t the most thrilling time in my career.” He also played a great deal with the Las Vegas Symphony Orchestra, which provided some fairly stable income and at least a more focused audience, but he knew he needed a change. Upon moving to Miami in 1969, Cachao continued his sideman work and began recording a string of soon-to-be-classic albums as a leader.
The ’70s saw more descarga recordings as Cachao directed or participated in several seminal albums—most of them recorded in New York. The amalgam of top-notch musicians on the Tico and Alegre labels—with the Tico All-Stars under the direction of Tito Puente and the Alegre All-Stars directed by Charlie Palmieri—forged the Tico-Alegre All-Stars, and their 1974 live performance at Carnegie Hall with Cachao on bass became a favorite among collectors. Among the gems led by the Maestro is Dos [Salsoul, 1976], which featured some of Latin music’s most celebrated artists, including the late pianist Charlie Palmieri, trombonist Barry Rogers, trumpeters Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros and El Negro Vivar, and percussionists Manny Oquendo (timbales) and Carlos “Patato” Valdez (congas).
The 1980s proved to be an interesting decade for Cachao in that it brought him to the San Francisco Bay Area for a series of concerts, recordings, and a documentary film about Cuban folkloric drummer Francisco Aguabella (Sworn to the Drum, produced by Flower Films). Cachao performed in an all-star lineup entitled “Conga Summit” featuring percussionists Aguabella, Patato, Julito Collazo, and many others; the Bay Area Latin music community certainly knew of Cachao’s many contributions to Cuban music. Yet despite his prolific career, outside of the salsa and Latin jazz circles, not much wide attention was paid to his legacy or his genre.
That would all change following a performance at San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, when as a featured artist with the Machete Ensemble for the 1989 San Francisco Jazz Festival, Cachao met his benefactor and No. 1 fan, Cuban-born actor/producer Andy García. Upon his visit backstage, García was so taken with el Maestro, he made the immediate decision to do whatever it took to support Cachao’s career and legacy. García subsequently produced two critically acclaimed CDs for Cachao on his Crescent Moon label: Master Sessions, Volumes 1 & 2, the first winning him his first-ever Grammy Award in 1994 at age 77. The second volume won Cachao a Downbeat Critics Poll in 1996.
The resulting collaboration and friendship with García led to appearances and recordings with Gloria Estefan (on the celebrated Mi Tierra album as well as her newly released 90 Millas), several Grammy-nominated and Grammy-winning recordings (among them with Cuban piano genius and long-time friend Bebo Valdés), international tours and performances, critically acclaimed documentary films (the first produced and directed by García and another set for release in February 2008), and the honor of getting the 2,219th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, in 2003. Also that year, García produced Cachao’s second Grammy-winning recording, Ahora Sí!, which includes wonderful footage of the sessions on a bonus DVD. Additional awards and honors include a Hispanic Heritage Award, an induction into the Smithsonian Institute, a National Endowment for the Arts Award, and a Governor’s Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
In March 2005 Cachao returned to San Francisco as part of San Francisco State University’s multimedia celebration honoring Cuban culture, titled To Cuba With Love. Curated by the University’s International Center for the Arts (ICA), the program featured a weeklong series of gallery exhibitions, lectures, and concerts with Cachao as special guest and recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award. The footage from the concerts—as well as conversations with numerous scholars and musicians about his musical legacy—is the subject of a documentary film titled Cachao: Una Mas (Cachao: One More Song), produced by the ICA’s Director of the Documentary Film Institute, Stephen Ujlaki. “This series was not only an homage to this wonderful man and his music, it was also the opportunity to document him in performance and to hear from many voices in the Latin music community,” Ujlaki says. “Making this documentary has really uncovered a family; much of the film includes wonderful conversations between Cachao and Andy as well as classic archival footage, plus his amazing shows.” Slated for its premiere at Mexico City’s International Film Festival in late February 2008, Cachao: Una Más has been a labor of love by the many skilled filmmakers and historians involved.
Throughout most of Cachao’s career, one person stood at his side: his wife of 58 years, Buenaventura. After every concert, she would embrace her husband and they would go off backstage hand-in-hand. Her passing in May 2005 left a void in Cachao’s life, and yet he insists, “She is always with me, after every concert, every recording. A love like that never leaves you.” Cachao was a one-woman man. “Everyone around was womanizing, but not me. There was only one woman for me my entire life.” While he may have slowed down a bit—he often sits on a stool while playing the bass—Cachao still insists he feels great and will keep playing whenever the opportunity arises. “Of course! Playing this music is what keeps me going. I feel perfect, and I am always ready to perform.”
Five Pros Offer Their Props
Andy Gonzalez (Fort Apache Band, Manny Oquendo & Libre, Chico O’Farrill Big Band): Cachao is my musical and spiritual father, and someone I’ve known and loved for over 35 years. Everything I play today has roots in his style. As a bandleader, he changed the course of Latin music several times, introducing street and dance elements to the formal Cuban danzón style, while also adding sophisticated composition and orchestration to the form. Then he developed the descarga, literally a jam style in which all of the band members are featured and let loose. Bass-wise, he’s the master of the science of the tumbao. He was a classically trained child prodigy from a family of over 40 bassists, who was playing with the Havana Symphony Orchestra at 15. He brought that knowledge into Cuban dance music, playing melodies and taking solos with the bow, and employing such ingenious devices as hitting the strings or the body of his bass to create a rhythmic counterpoint to his tumbaos. He’s a marvel, and best of all, he’s still going strong in his late-’80s!
John Benitez (Eddie Palmieri, Michel Camilo, Chick Corea): Cachao is one of the fathers of Latin music, who took it to a higher level of development and opened the doors for many. He brought in the mambo and other dance forms to the traditional danzón and really created a melting pot of Cuban dance music. In addition to his classical training and role as the principal bassist in the Havana Symphony, he showed the way to relate bass playing to conga drumming. He thought of his bass as a drum, so he was creating sounds right out of the tumbadora (conga drums)—hitting the bass and strings percussively with his hands. His genius and essence is the ability to find the exact right spot rhythmically in the division of the groove to excite it and drive it forward. You can hear that concept in a lot of contemporary Latin bassists, like Andy Gonzalez. Plus, Cachao has harmonic and rhythmic freedom in his playing, and openness using pedal tones and different rhythms. On top of it all he’s a beautiful, positive human being.
Lincoln Goines (Dave Valentin, Paquito D’Rivera, Tania Maria): Cachao implemented a certain kind of freedom on the bass; a looseness borne from his classical training and virtuosity—sort of like Oscar Pettiford in jazz. Cachao was one of the first to step out and not just lay down repeated patterns; he would alter and develop figures, like a drummer would do, or like a horn player riffing. The culmination was his descarga recordings, which are like the bible of Latin jazz, featuring incredible interplay with amazing musicians. On top of that, he was pioneering bandleader, composer, and arranger, just an all-around musical giant and innovator.
Oskar Cartaya (Willie Colón, Arturo Sandoval, Herbie Mann): Cachao is the maestro, a towering figure in Latin music, who has steered it in various directions. As a bassist, his situation was similar to James Jamerson and Larry Graham’s: when they started, there wasn’t a clear reference point, so they came up with their own concepts and those became the standard. In Cachao’s case we’re talking about a time when the bass didn’t even exist in some genres and ensembles! Cachao reformatted the whole idea of the tumbao. Before him, bassists were playing them very strict and straight. Cachao added rhythmic syncopation and melodic ideas, while still retaining the traditional foundation of the conga drum pattern. He was years ahead of his time and still is!
- By Chris Jisi
As a leader
Descarga [Maype, 1959]
Descarga Guajira [Caney, 1959, reissued 2002]
Cuban Jam Session, Vol. 2 [Panart, 1957]
Cuban Jam Sessions in Miniature [Panart, 1957]
Cachao y su Ritmo Caliente, From Havana to New York [Maype-Caney, 1961]
Dos [Salsoul, 1976]
Cachao y Su Descarga, Vol. 1 [Salsoul, 1977]
Latin Jazz Descarga, Pt. 2 [Tania, 1981]
Latin Jazz Descarga, Pt. I [Tania, 1981]
Maestro de Maestros—Cachao y Su Descarga ’86 [Tania, 1986]
Master Sessions, Vol. 1 [Crescent Moon/Epic, 1994]
Master Sessions, Vol. 2 [Crescent Moon/Epic, 1995]
Cuba Linda [EMI/Cineson, 2000]
Ahora Si! [Univision, 2004]
As a guest
Arcaño y Sus Maravillas, Danzón Mambo 1944–51 [reissued on Tumbao, 1993]
Generoso “El Tojo,” Trombón Majadero [Malanga Music, 1960]
Walfredo De Los Reyes y Su Orquesta, Sabor Cubano [Rumba, 1960]
Fajardo y Sus Estrellas, La Flauta de Cuba [Tania, ca. 1966]
Carlos “Patato” Valdez, Patato y Totico [Verve, 1968]
Tico-Alegre All-Stars, Live at Carnegie Hall [Fania/Emusica, 1974]
Tito Rodríguez, Tito, Tito, Tito [WS Latino]
Gloria Estefan, Mi Tierra [Sony, 1993]
Paquito D’Rivera, Presents 40 Years of Cuban Jam Sessions [Universal/Pimienta, 1993]
John Santos and the Machete Ensemble, Machete [Xenophile, 1995]
Bebo Valdés, El Arte del Sabor [Blue Note, 2001]
Various Artists, Calle 54: Music From the Miramax Motion Picture [Blue Note, 2001]
Danzón By Six, Elegante [Universal/Pimienta 2004]
Various Artists, The Lost City: Original Soundtrack [Univision, 2005]
Gloria Estefan, 90 Millas [Sony BMG Burgandy, 2007].
Films & Documentaries
Cachao: Una Mas, ICA Doc Film Institute, directed by Dikayl Dunkley (2008)
Calle 54, directed by Fernando Trueba (2001)
Cachao: Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos, directed by Andy García (1994)
Sworn to the Drum: A Tribute to Francisco Aguabella, directed by Les Blank (1995)
On YouTube you can find numerous clips of Cachao playing live with his all-stars, including a tribute on September 22, 2007, when the Maestro celebrated 80 years in music at Miami’s Carnival Center alongside fellow octogenarian Candido Camero, singers Willy Chirino, Lucrecia, and Issac Delgado, plus a host of greats. “That was a very special show,” says Cachao. “So many wonderful musicians performed with me that day. It was magical.” The Maestro beamed through the nearly three-hour show as thousands of audience members sang along to classic Cuban sones, mambos, and descargas.