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Watching L-E-V and Chucho Valdés: Hypnotized

Editor’s note: Helena Mesa is a poet and one of our 2015-2016 artists in residence. As part of this program, artists in residence attend UMS performances to inspire new thinking and creative work within their own art forms. Helena saw LEV, the dance company led by former Batcheva dancer and choreographer Sharon Eyal, and Chucho Valdés, the legendary Cuban pianist. Below is her response to the performance.


October arrived with techno beats and L-E-V, the dancers like liquid as they pulsed across the Power Center stage. Dressed in black body suits resembling latex, the dancers slid through space, but before I knew it, Sara, the 13-minute dance, ended, the lights stunned the auditorium, and our voices rose in response—each murmuring to the next. I’d come to the performance as part of the UMS artist in residence program, and suddenly, I wasn’t sure how I was going to write in response to dance.

It was later, during Killer Pig, the longer second performance, the dancers dressed in earthy tones, that my mind shifted, and instead of thinking about how to think about what I watched, I gave myself over to the music, to the conversation between body and sound. The dancers were hypnotic, shifting from ballet to modern dance, the forms blending, so I couldn’t tell what was what—what was classical, what was modern, what was the beauty of a body, and what was the beauty of the choreography. Their movements felt raw, one body’s motions echoing another’s, at times coming together, at times breaking apart, until one of the dancers broke off into her own, and the music, too, broke, into sharp sounds that almost hurt in its emotional cacophony.


And then, November arrived, and on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I walked through downtown to the Michigan Theater. The streets bustled. Folks strolled, enjoying the unexpected mild fall. Entering the theater to see Chucho Valdés: Irakere 40, I was surrounded by Spanish, the Cuban kind, the accent familiar, the words turning my ear in ways that carry me home. I settled into my seat, chatted with the woman beside me, fingered my program, and when the show finally began, the piano and bass and drums cracked the crowd’s murmurs. The notes spoke to one another. And the horns talked back.

chucho valdes and afro cuban messengers

And with time, so did we. We raised our hands and clapped to the beat, we stood and swayed our hips at our seats, and when the singer asked us to sing, we sang back, pio pio pio, and later ella, and suddenly, I found myself again hypnotized, giving myself over to the performers, but also, giving myself over to a familiar story: My father sitting on the couch reading the paper, my mother pulling him up from the couch, and the two giving themselves over to the piano and bass and horns of a Cuban big band, and dancing the way Cubans dance—with a joy to be alive.

That evening, I walked out into the twilight and felt the eerie feeling of being pulled out of myself. The music was still with me, and I felt that familiar feeling we often experience when we’re young—the desire to stay with the crowd for as long as we can, to feel part of something larger, and a strange sadness to walk off alone, the music still lingering. A horn to the chill in the air. A beating drum to each step toward the parking garage. The step back and half-turn up the stairs. My own humming.


When I was first learning to write, I wrote thick lyric poems that never made sense, and instead of thinking about how to write a clear narrative that a reader might understand, I focused on the poems’ music. At the time, I’d never studied meter or rhyme; I’d never thought about the structure of the line, but I wanted my poems to mimic Arturo Sandoval, an early member of Irakere. I’d listen to “A Mis Abuelos” (“To My Grandparents”) again and again, and then I’d color-code my poems, trying to find a way to mimic not only the rhythm, but the shift in tone between a solitary trumpet that suddenly breaks into a congregation of big band sounds—horns, piano, guitars, and conga drums.

Thankfully, I’ve lost all those badly written poems, but now I realize that I was trying to find a way to break open a poem, to evoke an emotion I didn’t know how to express, to say something unexpected and meaningful, much like James Wright captures at the end of “A Blessing”: “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.” I often, jokingly, tell my students that if I were ever to bear a needle long enough to get a tattoo, I’d print Wright’s lines along the inside of my forearm, as a reminder. Those transformative moments happen so rarely. You can’t force them—they just happen. Nonetheless, I want a poem to transform me as a reader, much like L-E-V and Chucho Valdés transformed me as a viewer.

I do not yet know how L-E-V and Chucho Valdés will shape my poetry. I can picture how the lines of a poem might begin to move through the white stage of a page, and I can imagine how I can play with both traditional rhythms and modern speech. And I know I want to find a way to layer different sounds and voices, like Chucho Valdés weaved tango, funk, and Afro-Cuban rhythms. But right now? I’m hung up on hypnotism, how the music compelled and enthralled me. How I couldn’t turn away from the elastic muscles and mirrored movements; I couldn’t turn away from instruments stretching and teasing until it seemed the song might break. In the dark, I leaned forward, wanting to memorize every movement and sound.

Photos are courtesy of the artists.

Growing up with Bebo: Cuban Pianist Chucho Valdés

chucho valdes and afro cuban messengers
Photo: Pianist Chucho Valdés (center) with his band the Afro-Cuban Messengers. They’ll be at Michigan Theater on November 8, 2015 as part of their Irakere 40 tour. Photo by Francis Vernhet.

Saying that Chucho Valdés grew up in a musical household is like saying that Chelsea Clinton’s parents had an interest in politics.

Chucho’s father, Bebo Valdés, was one of the most important composers, arrangers, and performers in pre-revolutionary Cuba. In the 1940s, when many top nightclubs in Havana only hired white musicians, the communist radio station Radio Mil Diez was the primary commercial venue for black Cuban musicians. Bebo played piano in the house band at the station. As an accompanist and arranger, he helped to launch the careers of musicians like Beny Moré and Celia Cruz. By the 1950s, the top cabarets began to hire black musicians. Bebo became the pianist and arranger for the house band at the most important venue in the city, the famed Tropicana Casino. This was the height of the Havana tourism industry, with its glamorous stage shows, gambling, and infamous mafia ties. Bebo accompanied leading Cuban and international stars, including Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole. Stan Getz also sat in with the band. After getting off work at 4 AM, Bebo worked early mornings as a studio musician, producing arrangements for hire in the highly competitive world of Cuban popular music.

Radio Mil Diez, Havana, 1940s.

Radio Mil Diez, Havana, 1940s.

This is the musical household into which Chucho Valdes was born. He learned music from Bebo, sitting on the piano bench watching his father’s hands or improvising together, “playing with four hands.” By the time he was a young teenager, on any given night, Bebo might tell Chucho to take over on piano at one of his nightly hotel gigs or big band engagements. This relationship between father and son lasted until Chucho was eighteen. Then, in 1960, they were divided by the unfolding revolution. Dissatisfied with the new political order, Bebo left Cuba. He eventually settled in Stockholm, where he married, started a new family, and worked in obscurity as a piano player in hotel lounge for three decades. Chucho stayed, taking over responsibility for family finances and becoming one of the most important cultural figures in Revolutionary Cuba. He led a jazz combo through the 1960s, known as the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna. Then, in the 1970s he became the main creative force behind the jazz-fusion project he called Irakere.

Only in the 1990s, around the time that Buena Vista Social Club renewed the world’s interest in the Cuban music of the pre-revolutionary period, did Bebo return to the international spotlight. In 2000, the Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba organized a meeting between Chucho and Bebo (the two had seen each other only once since Bebo left Cuba). He filmed a piano duet of the song “La comparsa”, which appears in his movie Calle 54 (2000). You can listen to a beautiful rendition of the song from their subsequent album (which also includes Chucho’s son, Chuchito Valdés), Dinastia Valdés (2009).

Bebo is also featured in Trueba’s 2010 animated film Chico and Rita,and in magnificent recent recordings including Lágrimas negras (with Diego el Cigala in 2002), and El arte del sabor (with Israel “Cachao” López and Carlos “Patato” Valdes, 2008).  Here you can listen to a tune from the album with Cigala.

Irakere, Jazz and the Revolution

Okay, back to our story. In the unusual cultural landscape of revolutionary Cuba, Irakere was a project of musical fusion with many layers, musical, political, and commercial.

On the one hand, the band included incredible soloists like Chucho, Arturo Sandoval (trumpet), Paquito D’Rivera (sax), and Carlos Emilio Morales (electric guitar) who were interested in playing modern jazz, including bop, the jazz-rock fusion developed by musicians like Chick Corea, and experimental modal and free jazz. These players had been working in jazz combos since the early 1960s, and from the very beginning they wanted audiences to stop and listen rather than dance. Irakere regularly featured extended instrumental solos, and many compositions served as vehicles for the players to demonstrate their virtuosity. You can hear this clearly in “Adagio de Mozart,” a vehicle for Paquito d’Rivera’s soprano sax. This version was from the group’s performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1978. The tour  followed on a visit of Dizzy Gillespie to Cuba in 1977, and served as a major coming out for the group into the international jazz public. The Grammy Award-winning album, Irakere (1979), includes songs from the Newport show and from the Montreaux Festival the same year. It is out of print, so if you see it in a record store definitely buy the vinyl. If you work for a record label, think about getting the rights to re-release.

The tendency to create music that required careful listening instead of dancing – music on the upper edge of the boundary between popular and “high culture” – also produced a remarkable set of collaborations in the 1970s with classical guitarist Leo Brouwer.  Here you can listen to the version of “Concierto de aranjuez” (a classical composition by the Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo) recorded by Irakere and Brouwer.

Jazz and Folklore

Becoming international jazz stars presented some potential political problems. In the 1970s, the Cuban government regarded North American music with fairly open hostility. Music that highlighted or blended jazz with Afro-Cuban folkloric music was, on the other hand, politically permissible. It conformed to the state’s determination that Afro-Cuban music (though not necessarily the spiritual practices to which it was linked) was part of a unique national heritage that should be preserved and promoted. Without a doubt, Irakere was a product of this political moment. Even as he sought to create modern jazz, Chucho gave the band an African-sounding name and began to experiment with fusions of jazz and Afro-Cuban music. It was common enough to have master percussionists familiar with afro-Cuban traditions (such as batá, abakua, or rumba) in popular or jazz bands, working licks or concepts from those styles into conga or bongo playing. This is what conga player Chano Pozo had done in Dizzy Gillespie’s band in the 1940s, and the bongó players in the Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñyero and Septeto Habanero did the same thing in the 1920s and 1930s. But Irakere’s percussionists Jorge “el Niño” Alfonso and Oscar Valdés were among the first (if not the first) to incorporated actual batá and yuka drums, rhythms, and choruses into the jazz format. Enrique Pla, a kit drummer with little previous Afro-Cuban experience, learned the bell patterns and incorporated them into his repertoire.

The folkloric vibe provided political cover, but it was also fertile musical territory. The incorporation of clave and other assymetrical Cuban rhythmic forms into the four-four frame of jazz had been something of a holy grail for a generation of North American musicians since Chano Pozo’s arrival on the scene. When Irakere went abroad, their solution to this problem was a revelation.   Listen for instance to this performance of “Misa negra,” also drawn from the Newport Jazz Festival performance. The song highlights Chucho’s composition and arrangements as well as the jazz improvisation of the soloists.

Irakere and Cuba’s Dance Culture

Believe it or not, Irakere was also a popular dance band with a major impact on the evolution of Cuban dance music. There was really no escaping this. Cuban audiences may not have cared much about official distinctions between revolutionary folklore and imperialist jazz music, but they expected bands to provide songs they could dance to. During their first gigs, members of Irakere looked out at impatient audiences standing around talking as the group worked through its highly intellectual compositions and virtuosic solos. All that changed with the group’s first successful dance song, “Bacalao con pan.” This was a different angle on fusion, built more clearly in dialogue with funk and rock. Listen for Carlos del Puerto’s distinctive way of playing electric bass, Carlos Emilio Morales playing electric guitar, and Chucho on electric organ. All are swinging between funk, jazz, and son, while Oscar Valdés provides Cuban-style vocals, and the soloists improvise up top.

Irakere subsequently developed a full repertoire of dance hits, which built on the frame of son and mambo, reworked around folkloric Afro-Cuban percussion, and funked up with electrified guitars, bass, and piano. “Chekere con son” is another example. As a result of these hits, the band set the stage for a broader transformation of Cuban dance music. Band member José Luis “El Tosco” Cortés emerged as a composer of many of the group’s popular dance numbers, pushing Irakere back in the direction of classic Cuban vocal parts and song structure, while keeping the new approach to rhythm, basslines, and instrumental virtuosity. In songs like “Por romper el coco” he created early versions of the sound that would later be called timba (for more on timba see my previous post).

Playing in Irakere

One final thought about Irakere. Having assembled a full brass and woodwind section including sublimely talented musicians, Chucho began creating arrangements to test their limits. This was in addition, of course, to allowing them freedom to improvise during instrumental solos. At first he would present arrangements, the musicians would rehearse for fifteen or twenty minutes, and they would say, “nice song, but is that it?” Taking this as a challenge he started adding notes, shifting the feel of the horn arrangements from a classic mambo syncopated loop (bim bim-bim-bim) to bop-style breathless runs (bi dubi-dibi-dubi-dum-du bibi-dubi-dudu). He also kept mixing up harmonies, creating charts that took the island’s best musicians hours of study and rehearsal. Playing in Irakere became a kind of musical mensa test, could you hang with players like Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D’Rivera as they tackled Chucho’s charts flawlessly?

Consider, for instance, this recording of “Juana 1600.” At first you might notice the folkloric rhythmic structure on which the song is constructed. Then comes del Puerto’s funky bass and Morales’s electric guitar. Then Chucho and Paquito add a jazzy keyboard and soprano vibe. Then comes a vocal coro (call and response), over a funk vamp built on the folkloric drumming. Then the Afro-Cuban coros alternate with scripted horn arrangements. Then come short, tight instrumental solos for each player in call and response with scripted horn phrases (providing the song’s hook), fast and precise.  Listen carefully to the last 15 seconds of the song. First comes a typically challenging horn run, inflected upwards like a question, and chock full of sixteenth notes. The answer comes with a classic mambo big band feel, a repeated, syncopated horn line. But this is Irekere, so the mambo section includes a distorted rock guitar playing arpeggios underneath the horns.

Listen and be amazed. But also give some thought to the shifts in personnel over the years. Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D’Rivera both left the band to go into exile. El Tosco moved on to lead NG La Banda. One by one, Chucho replaced the original members, finding the best young talent (of which Cuba has always had an abundance) and stretching his new players with both the difficulty of the music and the daunting task of playing in the shadow of the musicians they replaced. The Irakere 40 tour promises a group of “young firecracker musicians” replacing the stars who replaced the stars who replaced the original stars. We can be sure that they will be ready to tackle the old charts. We can only imagine what new surprises Chucho has in store for them, and for us.

Chucho Valdés: Irakere 40 is at Michigan Theater on November 8, 2015.