Timeless Music: Celebrating the Centennial of the Birth of Cuban Maestro Cachao

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Cachao performs on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on July 25, 1994.

The 100th birthday of the infinitely inventive Cuban double bassist and mambo pioneer falls on the Eve of Hispanic Heritage Month

The infinitely inventive double bassist and mambo and Latin jazz pioneer Israel Lopez -- Cachao -- would have turned 100 years old today (Sept. 14).  

Cachao made music from early childhood up until the days before his 2008 death at age 89 in Miami. By his own account, he performed with over 200 orchestras, getting his first break in 1927 when he accompanied silent movies with a combo led by iconoclastic singer Bola de Nieve. Cachao joined the Havana Philharmonic when still a tween, and went on to join various popular music bands, and then lead his own, playing every conceivable Cuban style and creating his own during a time when every day -- or night -- in Havana was marked by the creation of a new rhythm.

His first jam session album, 1957’s Jam Sessions in Miniature on Cuba’s pre-Revolutionary Panart label, was later inducted into both the Latin Grammy Hall of Fame and the Library of Congress National Recording Registry. I was honored to write the liner notes for the re-issue of that album in its original format, part of an upcoming box set of The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions originally recorded for Panart from Craft Recordings, the Concord Music imprint which now owns the Panart label. The Cachao session is being released digitally today to honor his 100th birthday.

In the 1930s and ‘40s, Cachao and his brother Orestes López turned out compositions to the rhythm of the danzón, then pushed the sound of Cuban ballroom music further with a more progressive Afro-Cuban-rooted version: one song was titled “Mambo.” While Cachao and Orestes (nicknamed Macho) played their first “danzón-mambos” with the big band Arcaño y su Maravillas as early as the late 1930s, mambo did not take off until Cuban bandleader Dámaso Pérez Prado piloted it in Mexico, igniting the international 1950s craze for the music that remains synonymous with dance floor mania today.

The exact origins of mambo are still debated, given that, like other game-changing global genres, it emerged from a progression of musical developments rather than one single eureka moment. But if, as some would later say, Perez Prado lifted the crown of mambo from the López brothers, it would certainly not be the only time that Cachao lost out on an opportunity for more massive success. Most famously, Cachao’s song “Rareza de Melitón,” later recorded as “Chanchullo,” served as the base for Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va,” which, as the rock version recorded by Santana in 1970, would become one of the most recognized Spanish-language tunes of all time. As Puente often noted, the song was a continuing source of income for him. But not for Cachao, who received no credit on the song.

“Cachao was not a guy who would be interested in self-promotion,” Andy Garcia told me during a recent phone conversation about the man he calls his musical hero. The Cuban American actor has been a fan of Cachao’s music since adolescence, and he orchestrated the maestro’s Grammy-winning recording comeback in the 1990s, which took him to world stages after decades playing obscure clubs and weddings in Miami. “He was not well-organized in terms of the business of Cachao.”

Garcia once asked the maestro how he felt about Puente using his riff for “Oye Como Va,”

“He just kind of shrugged his shoulders and said 'you know how kids are,'" Garcia recalled.

It’s an apt coincidence that the birth date of such an influential artist as Cachao falls on the eve of what we now call Hispanic Heritage month. Garcia notes that the artists impacted by his legacy “would take five hours to list.”

Cachao’s percussive plucking combined with his bowing techniques brought the bass into the spotlight in Cuban music and reverberated among jazz, and later, salsa musicians. His improvisational genius as both a player and bandleader can be heard on recordings he made throughout his career.

Easy access to Cachao’s legacy is still sadly lacking: the four late-life albums produced by Garcia, Master Sessions Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, Ahora Sí and Cuba Linda are currently not available on Spotify and other digital outlets. It can even take some digging to find the CDs. Without them, next-generation listeners will never hear Cachao’s full story. The good news from Garcia is that they could become available soon.

As he aged, Cachao showed concern about the future of music in general.

''Music has really suffered,” he told me in 2004, just before he turned 86. “It's strayed from what music really is. Today anyone is a musician, anyone is a singer, anyone is a composer. But that's not the way it is. Before, you had to study -- you went to the conservatory, you did things properly. Today, anyone writes a song and he thinks that it's good, but it's not.” With his typical humor, he scowled, imitating the hip hop and reggaeton artists who he dismissed as “mumbling” instead of singing.

As far as Cachao’s own legacy is concerned, Cachao’s final album, the Grammy-winning live recording The Last Mambo from a 2007 Miami concert, is sublime reassurance. It’s a beautiful testament to the timelessness of his music and to his democratic sharing of the stage – listening to the musicians engaging in totally collaborative creation contains life lessons as well as musical ones. The album also catches Cachao in the act of passing the torch to several generations of younger artists, including violinist Alfredo de la Fé, trombone player Jimmy Bosch, percussionist Edwin Bonilla and Cuban singers Issac Delgado and Lucrecia.

“He said to me, my talent and my music is a gift from God and I share it and people can use it,” Garcia says, quoting the maestro. “That’s my gift and that’s what I’m here to do.”


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