Chucho Valdés Honors Father Bebo With a Cuban Jazz Masterpiece
The 2018 Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement honoree and his powerful band previewed the new album "Jazz Batá 2" at the Barcelona Jazz Festival.
Chucho Valdés’ opening concert at Barcelona’s Voll-Damm International Jazz Festival celebrated both his new album, Jazz Batá 2, and the centennial of the birth of his father, Bebo Valdés. Near the end of the show, the renowned Cuban pianist -- who will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award during a private ceremony before next week’s Latin Grammys -- was encircled by his musicians onstage. Wearing a Kangol cap and silk scarf that complemented his print shirt, the towering Valdés stepped away from the keys to join the band in a jubilant dance that traced the steps of African religious ritual’s journey into popular Cuban music.
In the center of this on-stage rumba were the batá of the album’s title, a set of three progressively-sized two-headed drums that were being played together by one musician, Dreiser Durruthy Bombalé.
“It’s a unique sound,” says Bombalé, 41, who began learning the secrets of the batá at a young age in Cuba. He stresses that he is still learning. “The batá is very conversational,” he tells Billboard of the hour-glassed shaped drums, which play the rhythms used to call the pantheon of Afro-Cubans gods in ceremonies of the religion commonly known as Santería. Bombalé’s playing and chanting provoked a powerful call and response in the Yoruba language with some Cuban members of the audience at the Oct. 26 show at Barcelona’s Palau de la Música. Bombalé then left the stage and sang from the aisles at the grand Catalan Modernist concert hall that is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The three drums that Bombalé performed with at the concert are not the same as the ones used in those rituals, where three men initiated into a fraternity each play one of the drums, which are carved from a single piece of wood, symbolizing unity. Onstage with Valdés, Bombalé uses a set of batá manufactured by LP.
“They are not sacred, they are instruments for making music,” he explains. “Playing at a ceremony is not the same as playing in a music hall.” But, he stresses, the rhythms he is playing are the same. “The mysticism remains,” he adds, explaining that el maestro Valdés builds harmonies around the fundamental batá rhythms.
Valdés recorded Jazz Batá 2 as a tribute to his father in what would have been his 100th year. It was Bebo who in the early 1950s conceived a new sound for a jazz big band with an amplified Afro-Cuban percussion session at its center, featuring the batá and thus pioneering a revolutionary concept. The rhythm he dubbed the batanga was unveiled with much fanfare on a live radio broadcast. But Bebo’s batanga proved to be before its time, and soon disappeared in the shadow of another new groove: the mambo.
With Jazz Batá 2, due out Nov. 16 (Mack Avenue), Chucho Valdés also salutes the early days of his own famously ingenious career. He recorded his 1972 album Jazz Batá with an experimental jazz trio, infusing it with Afro-Cuban essence by substituting the drum kit with the batá. Valdés made that record with the venerable percussionist and drum maker Oscar Valdés and bassist Carlos del Puerto. Shortly thereafter, both musicians would join Chucho as founding members of his influential group Irakere, which would become the cornerstone of contemporary Cuban jazz. (In a historic moment in Cuba-U.S. relations, the group won a Grammy award in 1980; Chucho has since won five more, and three Latin Grammys.)
Valdés magistral compositions on Jazz Batá 2 conjure ancestral African spirits, but also those of progressive jazz greats, classical composers and a century’s worth of Cuban popular music innovators. With the ease and confidence of his stature, Chucho, who is 77 years-old, brings to the fore the timeless grace and continuous innovation that marked his father’s career, and has characterized his own artistic output.
The album includes a song that Chucho’s father often played on the piano at home when he was a boy. “I never heard it on any album,” he told the audience at the Barcelona concert. Nor had he heard his father call it by name. Chucho titled the track simply “100 Años de Bebo”. (“One Hundred Years of Bebo”).
The 50th anniversary edition of the Barcelona Jazz Festival, which runs through December is dedicated to Bebo Valdés, and includes an upcoming concert by Diego el Cigala, with whom Bebo recorded the hit album Lagrimas Negras. Chucho Valdés and his band will perform on The Jazz Cruise departing from Ft. Lauderdale, FL in January 2019, and will bring Jazz Batá on tour to several U.S. cities in February.