Saturday, March 29, 2008

Cachao's Funeral

Miami Herald
Posted on Fri, Mar. 28, 2008
Fans and friends bid joyous farewell to Cachao
He wasn't acting.

When Andy García gave the farewell talk Thursday at the end of the St. Michael's Catholic Church funeral Mass for Cuban music legend Israel ''Cachao'' López, he kept choking up. García, who got a standing ovation even before he began speaking, had produced Cachao's recordings since the '90s and was responsible for the resurgence of his career.

Speaking Spanish like everyone else at the Mass, the actor admitted his first memory of Cachao might have been ''dreamed'' -- a vague childhood recollection of when his father, who was mayor of a town in Cuba's east end, hired bassist and bandleader Cachao to play a local dance.

His first real encounter came in 1989, when García, who was filming Godfather III, attended a Cuban music concert in San Francisco. Backstage, the actor introduced himself to the musician, who had no idea García was famous. From then on, García became Cachao's producer and benefactor.

Garcia's fond recollections capped a ceremony full of emotion, mostly joyous, as befitted a man who, as many recalled, never stopped smiling or telling jokes. Music professionals filled the pews, both the famous like Gloria Estefan and the more obscure working musicians and label representatives.

Under the baton of Cachao's close collaborator, Uruguayan violinist Federico Britos, a modest-sized but full orchestra played the prelude to Cachao's Misa de Mambo, a Mass that had debuted five years earlier in Los Angeles. As the name indicated, the Mass had a marked, danceable Afro-Cuban beat, and the hundreds of mourners gathered in the church clapped along.

When the image of Cuba's patron saint, the Virgin of Charity, was brought in from its Coconut Grove shrine, the swaying statue on a hand-carried litter seemed to dance to the rhythms.

There were moments in the Mass when the church choir and soloists intoned more traditional religious music, like Schubert's Ave Maria. But in the middle, the orchestra, which included string section and a percussion ensemble, returned to the late artist's mambo Mass, with its hot beat.

And after communion, the orchestra played one of Cachao's danzones, Marianao Social Club (a sibling of the famous Buena Vista, also a Cachao composition), with Britos asking Cachao's nephew, Daniel Palacio, and Willy Chirino to join in the vocals.


The horns, which included trumpet master Arturo Sandoval, soloed with gusto, and it seemed like the entire Mass was about to evolve into a salsa party.

Emilio Estefan also spoke, and, citing Cachao's penchant for joking, he told of how the first artist Estefan signed for his new label, Crescent Moon Records, was the legendary bassist.

'When I told [Sony], they asked me, `Is he handsome,' and I said, 'I think he is.' 'Does he sing?' 'No.' 'Can he dance?' '' Estefan also answered no, but repeated the title of a Cachao composition, ``como su ritmo no hay dos [there are no two rhythms like his].''

Gloria Estefan gave the first scripture reading of the Mass, followed by Willy Chirino, who read it with a flair worthy of a preacher.

The Mass was conducted by (the Rev. Alberto Cutié, the Cuban-American priest famous as a TV host and advice columnist. His sermon, on how Cachao had given back all he had received from God, namely his talent, had some mourners weeping.

The casket was flanked by two big Cachao portraits, both taken by Miami Herald photographer Carl Juste.

Other than the music, García's speech was the most rousing aspect of the ceremony. When he spoke of discovering Cuban music at a Little Havana record store, he listed a number of Cuban greats, including Cachao, and after every name the church burst out in applause.

''That's where I devoted myself to Cuba and Cachao,'' García said, adding, ''What do we do with such a monumental legacy?'' And a woman in the audience answered, ''Continue the tradition!'' Once again, the church burst into applause.

Wednesday night, the church also was packed, as the artist's family, friends and admirers came to pay their respects and bid farewell to Cachao, on view in an open casket. As Cachao's band, also under Britos, finished playing two of the maestro's compositions, all the church lights were extinguished, except the one that shone on the casket.

Next to Cachao, there was was a Cuban flag, ceremoniously folded, and at his feet there was a large bouquet of white roses.

This image of the luminous exiled musician recalled one of Cuban patriot and poet José Martí's famous verses:

I want the day I die/

With no country, but under no master,/

To have on my tomb a bouquet/

Of flowers and a flag.

Perhaps deliberate, perhaps not, but certainly fitting were García's references Thursday to Cachao as ''this man who was sencillo'' (''simple'' in the sense of unaffected) and ''sincere'' -- almost identical to other Martí verses that were musicalized into the now classic Guantanamera.


After the Mass, a large car procession that passed the Versailles Restaurant -- one of Cachao's favorite hangouts -- followed the hearse that carried his remains to Vista Memorial Gardens in Hialeah.

After Cachao was laid to rest, some of the musicians at the cemetery started an impromptu descarga, the kind of jam session Cachao made famous half a century ago, with García on the congas. ''Cachao has to be remembered with joy and good times'' said his nephew Daniel Palacio.

''Whenever we went to a wake, he'd start telling jokes and funny anecdotes from the time he arrived to the time he left,'' Palacio said. ''He didn't want weeping or sadness at his own funeral,'' he added, admitting there was plenty at the burial site.

''He was an angel,'' Palacio said.

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