Cachao: Mambo Man

Ernest Barteldes By

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Mambo was something I created with my brother. Later, Perez Prado began calling himself
At 89 years of age, Israel "Cachao Lopez continues to perform the mambo, the Afro-Cuban rhythm that he helped create with his late brother, multi-instrumentalist Orestes Lopez; a genre that gained international fame through the efforts of Tito Puente, Celia Cruz and ,principally, Perez Prado, among others.

Cachao, however, did not enjoy the initial fame of his creation due to his own shyness and because, as a young man, he had been pursuing other musical genres, as he stated during a 2007 interview conducted in Spanish backstage at New York's Blue Note jazz club.

"I've been playing for over eighty years, he said as he prepared for the early set. "I have performed with many orchestras, playing various styles. I played in Havana for thirty years, from 1930 to 1960, and during that time I had the opportunity to work with all the great conductors that visited Cuba.

"The only one that I didn't have the opportunity to work under was Toscanini—except for that one, I played classical music with the all of them [he names Karajan] and had the opportunity to travel with many of them.

"I also performed with the Philadelphia Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestras and alongside many of the famous pianists of the time, such as Teodoro Ruiz, a very good Chilean musician, Claudio Arau and other classically trained symphony music players, who did serious music.

During his years as a classical performer, he also performed with the New York Metropolitan Opera and worked with Renata Tebaldi, "one of the greatest sopranos in the world, when she visited Cuba. "I also had a six-month residency in Monaco, and over the years I've played with everyone.

Cachao began his musical career as a percussionist in 1926, but later on he learned to play the upright bass. "I also learned to play the piano and later on the très [a three-stringed guitar commonly used in Cuban music and more recently in flamenco], but I have mostly dedicated myself to the bass to this date.

Mambo came to existence in the late 1930s, when Cachao and his brother were searching for new ideas after having written and recorded several string-and-flute charangas. Modernizing a French parlor music called the danzón, they came up with a new beat, which they recorded in 1938 with the title "Mambo.

"The origins of 'Mambo' happened in 1937, Cachao said to The San Francisco Chronicle in 2004. "My brother and I were trying to add something new to our music and came up with a section that we called danzon mambo. It made an impact and stirred up people. At that time our music needed that type of enrichment.

The genre, however, did not launch him to stardom. He was happy at his job with the Havana Symphony (where he worked for thirty years) and he also was a go-to guy for sessions and stage. He never really showed any interest in becoming a bandleader, so many others used the new rhythm as a launching pad for their own careers.

"Mambo was something I created with my brother. Later, Perez Prado began calling himself 'the king of mambo,' but I never had any hard feelings about this, because if it weren't for him the mambo would not have been internationally recognized, he said.

"We were never rivals nor enemies, but close friends. When Prado was touring Japan, his bassist fell ill and he said, 'what are we going to do, this is Cuban music, who can play this?' and after a while someone said, 'we know one, Cachao' and then he picked up the phone and called me in Madrid, where I was at the time and he hired me for two weeks and I played with him in Paris, Madrid and Germany. We got along quite well and I have been working internationally ever since.

With the Cuban Revolution, Cachao had difficult decisions to make—he had a steady job in Havana, but the regime would possibly change the way he would make a living. In 1962, with a work contract in his hands, he decided to leave Cuba and relocate to Spain, where he worked with maestro Ernesto Duarte, who led a group there called Sabor Cubano (Cuban Flavor).

"About a year and a half later, I was hired to perform at The New York Palladium, where I played with Charlie Palmieri and later with Pacheco, Tito Rodrigues, Tito Puente and Machito, he recalled. "In 1970, I went to Las Vegas, where I lived for nine years and then I finally moved to Miami, where I have lived ever since. I come to New York frequently, this city is like a second home to me.

It was not an easy transition, though, as he struggled with adapting with life in a new country. "It was very hard—it is very difficult to become used to living here, especially for Cubans, he said. "It took me five years to become comfortable here. Before that, I only thought about going back—it's a great shock, because of the culture, the education and everything else. However, after that period you don't want to leave—Cuba is a great place to visit, but I could not live there anymore.

Asked if he ever went back for a visit, he simply replied that he hasn't. "I am not a politician, just a musician.

Among his many musician friends is fellow Cuban Bebo Valdes, with whom he recorded the Grammy-awarded El Arte del Sabor (Blute Note, 2001). "I met Bebo in 1939, when I was already a professional musician, recalled Cachao. "We never played together in Cuba, but we were fast friends. Bebo is a fine player and I followed his career closely, he said. "Some time in the 1960s, when he was living in Switzerland, we finally played together.

"Bebo and I have been friends for more than sixty years—I am a month older than he is and I guess that makes me a bit wiser, he said with a smile.

One of the main figures in giving Cachao the recognition he deserves is actor and director Andy Garcia, who met the musician in San Francisco in the early 1990s and made the 1993 documentary Cachao ... Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos (Like His Rhythm There Is No Other), which traced Cachao's career from his years as a child prodigy who began playing at age nine to his invention of the mambo and the descarga (jam session). Garcia also produced (and played percussion) on Ahora Si! (Univision, 2004), which earned a Grammy Award that year.

"With Cachao, his humbleness and complete devotion to his art are great examples to me as an artist, Garcia said to The San Francisco Chronicle in 2004. "He's loose and easygoing, but very serious about his work. There are certainly a lot of people who know Cachao's music, but very few that are as obsessed and devoted as I am. I know what he is stylistically capable of, so that's why I'm a good producer for him.

Pianist Eddie Palmieri, who also worked with Cachao, says he considers him "a musical genius and good friend. His vast discography stands alone and must be appreciated by everyone in the music industry!

It is a treat to see and hear Cachao performing live these days with his Afro-Cuban All-Stars. In the summer of 2006, he was honored during the JVC Jazz Festival, and performed at Carnegie Hall. It was hard for members of the audience to sit still, as the music is intended for the dance floor. Cachao stood for most of the songs (there was a stool placed behind him, which he barely used) and was later gracious with fans and well-wishers who greeted him backstage after the performance.

One of the things that immediately catches your attention is the amazing energy he emanates from the stage, which he credits to the attention he pays to his health. " I lead a very peaceful life—I neither smoke nor drink and I try to live quietly, without too many women—at my age, that is not really an issue, he said with a chuckle.

Selected Discography

Cachao, Cuba Linda (EMI Latina, 2000)

Cachao, Master Sessions, Vol. 1-2 (Crescent Moon/Epic-Sony, 1995)

Cachao, Walpataca (Latin Jazz Descarga—Pt. I) (Tania, 1981)

Cachao, Cachao y su descarga '77, Vol. 1 (Salsoul, 1977)

Cachao y su Ritmo Caliente, From Havana to New York (Maype-Caney, 1961)

Cachao, Cuban Jam Sessions in Miniature (Panart, 1957)

Photo Credit

Jose Manuel Horna

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