Nonagenarian Cándido Camero Takes Center Stage at Cachao Tribute Concert

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Roberto Koltun OCB/Radio TV Marti
Candido Camero

The pioneering Cuban conga player Cándido Camero -- who as a young man performed with Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and Billy Taylor, to name just a few -- will turn 98 years-old in April.

Last Friday (March 15), he entered the stage from the wings of Miami’s Adrienne Arsht concert hall in a wheelchair. But his fingers, ready and wrapped with bands of white tape, did not stop moving once he sat in front of his signature set of three congas. His almost twenty-minute solo surprised not only members of the audience, but, it appeared, the other musicians on stage as well, whose attempts to jump back in were stymied by Camero, as his hands continued to nimbly move across the skins, demonstrating why he is called “the thousand-finger man.”  

Cándido, as he is known to all, beat out the familiar melody of “Manteca,” by Gillespie and conguero Chano Pozo (who Candido stepped in to replace in Gillespie’s band after Pozo’s murder in 1948), which is a cornerstone of Afro-Cuban jazz. When Cándido finished, he looked up at the audience with a grin and said, “Wow!”

There were many such moments during the concert, where the mood was set by a standing ovation after the first number. “Mambo: 100 Years of the Master Cachao” paid tribute to the great bassist Israel “Cachao” López in what would have been his 100th year. Cachao, one of the most influential musicians of all time, liked to describe his genius by simply explaining that he was “always inventing something.”

“Cachao was both a genius and a gentleman,” said Nelson Albareda, who, in addition to being the CEO of the concert’s promoter, Loud & Live, produced Cachao’s final, Grammy-winning album, The Last Mambo. Omer Pardillo-Cid co-produced the concert with Albareda.

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Among Cachao’s inventions, as is well known, was the mambo, the riff on danzón that Cachao developed with his brother, Orestes López. Cachao, who revolutionized the way that the bass is played in Cuban music, is also known as an originator of the descarga; the Cuban jam session.

The concert was structured in two progressive parts: the danzón portion, performed with an orchestra that featured a full string section, conducted by violinist Federico Britos. The second part, honouring improvisation, featured Candido and salsa violinist Alfredo de la Fe as special guests.

The set list at the almost three-and-a-half-hour show included the live premiere of compositions that Cachao wrote just before his death in 2008.

The concert was at once a master class and a celebration of the creativity with which Cuban music seduced the world. While the concert was a rousing tribute to Cachao’s talent, it also was a testimony to his spirit, embodied by a formidable line-up of musical iconoclasts, which included Britos, who coaxed sophistication and sentiment from the orchestra while conducting with his violin bow; and De la Fe, who stormed onto the stage with rock-star energy.

The special guests who joined the formidable band of Cachao Mambo All Stars also included Albita, who led the home crowd in singing “Guantanamera,” and could have just as well done so without a microphone. Ramses Colón, the band’s director, stood in Cachao’s place at the bass. The show also featured an appearance from esteemed Cuban composer and arranger Juanito Márquez. Daniel Palacio, Cachao’s nephew and executor of his estate, was one of a duo of dancing vocalists whose perpetual grins were infectious.

“Cachao was my great friend, a great musician and a great man,” Cándido told the audience near the close of the show. “I’ll never forget him.”