Bebo Valdés is more than the ranking patriarch of Cuban pianists: he is a living archive of the piano literature of Cuba, as this eponymously titled release amply demonstrates. More than simply a solo albumamazingly, his first everthis release is a comprehensive survey of the grand sweep of Cuba's piano canon, a rich and storied tradition to which Valdés is heir and guardian.
Valdés (b. 1918) has only recently garnered renown outside Cuba, largely as a result of his appearance in the Fernando Trueba film Calle 54 (Miramax, 2001). It was Trueba who instigated this recording, insisting to Valdés that every pianist who takes pride in his work should make at least one solo album. Valdés, a modest man, expressed some doubt about his ability to carry properly the music minus a rhythm section. Obviously it was a needless concern, given the seemingly effortless manner in which he handles the complex polyrhythms that are a hallmark of Cuban music.
"La Caridad," for example, calls for the left hand to play a 2/4 rhythm while the right hand plays in 3/4 time. Other songs display the independence of hands needed for a pianist to synthesize the Africanized counter-rhythms of the Cuban dance orchestra. In two guaguancós, "Consuélate" and "Cuba Linda," Valdés somehow manages convincingly to distill this formatwhich features three drummers, various lead vocalists and a responsive chorusdown to two hands on a keyboard.
Credited with playing a major role in the development of the mambo during the pre-Revolution years, Valdés is thought of as a jazz pianist and composer; he backed up Nat "King" Cole's best-selling 1958 album Cole Español, recorded in Havana, and was at one time the director of that city's famous Tropicana Club. However, there is little here that will be recognizable as Afro-Cuban jazz to most American ears.
Beginning with the mincing "La Caridad," which evokes an aristocratic French salon far more than a steamy Caribbean nightclub, this album is a survey of Cuba's classical music. In Calle 54, Valdés showed his grasp of the long view in Cuban music while discussing this French component, one little-recognized in the United States.
It's nothing new for prominent American and European jazz pianists to explore classical piano. However, when done from a Cuban perspective, the result is a unique confluence of the cultivated and the popular that might, for some, call George Gershwin to mind. This is no mere coincidence; Valdés recalls seeing him perform in Havana in 1932, a visit which inspired Gershwin to write the "Cuban Overture" (from which Valdés quotes four bars in "échale Sálsita"). This was the beginning of a period of tremendous ferment in Cuban music extending through the 1940s, when composers such as Valdés freed the mambo's syncopation from the danzón structure with innovative jazz arrangements.
Here, thirteen pieces exemplifying Cuba's major musical genres, starting with the emergence of a recognizably Cuban music in the mid-19th Century, are presented more or less chronologicallycontradanza, danza, danzón, bolero, guaguancó. A patriarchy of composers is on display: Manuel Saumell Robredo, the "father of Cuban music"; Ignazio Cervantes, "father of the Cuban danza"; Sindo Garay, "a father of the bolero." Valdés' pianistic pantheon also includes José White, Eduardo Sánchez de Fuentes, Jorge Anckerman, Guillermo Castillo, Antonio Romeu, Ernesto Lecuona, Ignacio Piñeiro, Moisés Simón, Silvestre Méndez and Virgilio Marti.
Just as this album cannot really be classified as jazz, neither can it be regarded as particularly joyous, either. Rather, it is a musical chronicle of old age and exile, longing and loss. "This album represents nostalgia for things, people and places that no longer exist, for lost youth, for lost loves, for a world that, if it has not already disappeared, is fast slipping away," writes Valdés in his liner notes, which are both scholarly and poignant. "It is an honour for me to represent my dear Cuba at the end of my life."
Valdés, who was married to Pilar Valdéz and is the father of pianist Chucho Valdés, left Cuba for Mexico in the early 1960s and briefly lived in the United States before moving to Sweden, where he has resided ever since with his second wife and two daughters. The penultimate track, "Oleaja," is the sole Valdés composition on the album, and he writes that it might well have been its finale. Instead, he decided to append what he describes as an epilogue, "Cuba Linda" by Marti, whom he terms one of the greatest rumba composers ever. The song's lyrics he quotes are heartbreaking to anyone familiar with homesickness: "Cuba, my life's beauty/I will always remember you, beautiful Cuba; How I would love to see you now ..."
The harplike sweeps of "Oleaja" imitate the waves on the beach of Santiago de Cuba, where Valdés was inspired to write the song in 1946. It's not just any beach, either, as he has pointed out on previous occasions. In Calle 54, he explained that this was where the defeated French colonialists fled after the Haitian revolution of 1804, bringing with them the danzón. His liner notes here also point out that this was the beach where the Americans disembarked in 1898 for their war with the Spanish.
These subtle but significant historical asides are as close as Valdés comes to explicit political commentary. Unlike other Cuban expatriate musicians, notably Paquito D'Rivera, who is outspoken in his condemnation of Fidel Castro in his recent autobiography My Sax Life (Northwestern, 2005), Valdés does not elaborate on why he left his homeland, never to return. Doubtless, this silence is due in large measure to the fact that his son Chucho and several grandchildren live in Cuba, and they might be subject to retribution were he to openly express criticism of Castro's cultural policies.
Those policies, as is so often the case with revolutionary demagogues exploiting popular nationalist fervor, brought persecution of artists, writers and musicians in their wake. In a well-researched book tracing the past 100 years of Cuban jazz, Cubano Be, Cubano Bop (Smithsonian, 2003), Leonardo Acosta sheds light on the complex back story behind the exodus of Valdés, Israel López "Cachao," and other prominent jazz musicians from the island. Acosta notes that it is debatable whether or not Castro's revolutionary (later communist) government intentionally set out to suppress jazz as it did with Anglo-American rock'n'roll and the toques de santo (Afro-Cuban religious music officially classified as superstitious witchcraft).
But when revolutionaries like Castro foment rebellion, they almost inevitably open a Pandora's Box of anarchy and mob rule as well, unleashing currents of fanaticism, vandalism and thuggery that become runaway locomotives of mass hysteria. Historically, artists and intellectuals end up bearing the brunt of this social pathology. Castro and his cohorts, writes Acosta, fostered an atmosphere of witch-hunting under the pretext that jazz was "imperialist" music.
In 1960, agitators carried away by the anti-imperialist sentiment of the time disrupted a jazz descarga (the Cuban term for "jam session") at the Capri Hotel in which Guillermo Barreto, Pablo Chano and other well-known musicians were playing. Even if this and other such incidents were not directly instigated by Castro, they were nonetheless condoned by him. Shortly thereafter, Valdés, Cachao, El Negro Vivar, Pedro Chao, Walfredito de los Reyes, Papito Hernández, Juanito Márquez and host of other top Cuban musicians left the country.
In Cuba, explains Acosta, this hyper-politicization of the arts mimicked a similar movement in the USSR led by the cult of Maxim Gorky, the theorist of "socialist realism." (There, under the heavy hand of Josef Stalin, this state doctrine resulted in the persecution and imprisonment of writers and musicians, including Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich). Even after the Cuban street mobs had dispersed, musicians still continued to suffer quasi-official harassment. For example, Acosta writes, during the late 1960s and early 1970s, the idiosyncrasies of individual bureaucrats led to the suspension of students at the prestigious Escuela Nacional de Música caught playing jazz.
What one takes away from all this is the realization that Cuban jazz musicianslike jazz musicians everywhereare creative artists, not political ideologues. Valdés and others mentioned above did not leave their country because they were die-hard capitalists or rabid anti-communists. It was not personal animosity towards Castro that drove them into exile; they just wanted to be able to play their music, and they could not do so.
Cuba's loss has been the world's gain. No musician can know in advance how successful an album will be, as Valdés acknowledges, but he nonetheless predicts this one "will find its way into the hearts of many Cubans. And the hearts of many others who are not Cubans." For sensitive listeners hearing Valdés' impeccable style, sumptuous romanticism and profound musicality, there can scarcely be any doubt of that prediction.
Tracks: La Caridad; Tu Sonrisa; Danza No. 1; Danza No. 2; La Bayamesa; La Bella Cubana; Tú; La Flor del Yumuri; Tres Lindas Cubanas; Al Fin Te Vi; Danza Lucumi; La Comparsa; échale Sálsita; Marta; Consuélate; Oleaje; Cuba Linda.
Personnel: Bebo Valdés: piano.