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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.

Meet Members of Pedrito Martinez Group

The Pedrito Martinez Group performs in Ann Arbor on March 14, 2014 as part of a unique double-bill with the trio of Cuban Pianist Alfredo Rodríguez.

In this video, get a peek at the behind-the-scenes moments of producing the group’s debut records, and learn more about each member of the group:

Interested in more? Read our interview with Cuban Pianist Alfredo Rodríguez.

Buena Vista Social Club is a Party Foul

Photo: Pedrito Martinez Group. The group performs with Alfredo Rodríguez Trio on March 14, 2014 in Ann Arbor. Photo by Petra Richterova.

Has this ever happened to you? You find yourself in a conversation with someone who knows a lot about music (and probably craft brewed beer, artisanal fermented foods, and expensive jeans). When the topic shifts to Cuban music you make the mistake of saying something like, “Oh I love Cuban music, I listen to Buena Vista Social Club all the time.” A smirk quickly appears on the face of your friend. All of the air goes out of the room. You know you have said something terribly wrong, but you are not sure exactly what.

If this has ever happened to you (or even if it hasn’t), you need to get tickets to come see Alfredo Rodríguez and Pedrito Martínez, two talented young musicians from Cuba who are reworking the Cuban sounds they grew up with.

“The Special Period”

First a disclaimer: I love Buena Vista Social Club. I do not care who smirks at me for it. But here is a little context. Buena Vista Social Club appeared in 1997 during what Cubans call “The Special Period.” Cuba’s socialist economy entered a severe crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union, as trade and assistance from Communist Europe suddenly vanished. Meanwhile the United States tightened its trade embargo. In response, the Cuban government shifted its economic strategy towards the development of tourism and the marketing of Cuban culture to international audiences. At the same time, the Clinton administration loosened restrictions on travel by Cuban artists to the United States. Buena Vista Social Club – a phenomenon which includes an album, a film, and many international tours – was the most commercially successful cultural enterprise of this new landscape. And it is brilliant. But the vision of Cuba that Buena Vista Social Club sold was one where time had stood still: a world of crumbling Art Deco buildings, well maintained vintage automobiles, and picturesque elderly black performers playing exactly the same music that they had played in the decades before the revolution.

So the knock on Buena Vista Social Club is that it reintroduced international audiences to a Cuba that no longer existed. This was our loss, because the music that had evolved in Cuba in the 1970s and 1980s, and was still evolving in Cuba in the 1990s and beyond, was pretty special. This is where Alfredo Rodríguez and Pedrito Martínez come in. They came of age in Cuba in the Special Period, when “Chan Chan” played in every bar in Madrid and Paris, but that sort of music was only really heard in hotels catering to tourists in Cuba. Their music gives a glimpse of what was happening in Cuba as the elderly musicians of Buena Vista Social Club conquered the world.

Chan Chan:

Music: A hallmark of Cuban socialism

One of the amazing things about music in Havana in these years was the extent of conservatory training; expanded access to music education was a hallmark of the cultural policy of Cuban socialism. So it was not uncommon for popular musicians in Cuba in these years to have advanced classical training. Born in 1985, Alfredo Rodríguez, the son of well-known popular musician and television personality, grew up in this system. He moved back and forth between the classical training of the conservatory and the popular music he played with his father. Eventually he found his niche in the world of jazz. Cuban musicians from had been experimenting with jazz since the 1970s. By the 1990s, after the much-publicized visit of Dizzy Gillespie to Cuba, the top players in the Cuban jazz world became part of the international circuit. Some defected, but others simply enjoyed the new freedom to tour outside Cuba that came with the new economic strategies of the regime. Rodriguez was playing in Montreaux in 2006 when he met Quincy Jones. Then he was playing with his father’s band in Mexico when he decided to cross the border into the US to work with Quincy.

A second important musical trend in Cuba after the revolution was shifting official policy towards Afro-Cuban folkloric music, percussive styles like rumba, abakua, and batá (the music played during Santería ceremonies). African slaves and their descendants developed these styles of music in the context of spiritual practice and community life not the music industry. In the 1960s and 1970s, the master percussionists of these traditions became employees of state folklore agencies, performing Afro-Cuban music on stage. In the 1990s, folklore groups and the state began selling this version of Cuban culture abroad too. Afro-Cuban cultural groups like Muñequitos de Matanzas began travelling to the US. Pedrito Martínez grew up in this world, winning international competitions in Afro-Cuban hand drumming and entering the world of professional musicianship on international tours with Muñequitos de Matanzas. He also won international exposure as part of a rumba ensemble that appeared in the film Calle 54 (2000). We cannot link to video of this segment because of copyright, but it is worth watching on Netflix if you can.

Muñequitos de Matanzas during their first US tour in 1992:

Timba is perhaps the most important of all the musical innovations in Cuba during the Special Period. Timba was a dance music popular among the urban, Afro-descended Cubans who found themselves increasingly disenfranchised by the shifting economic strategies of the socialist government. Timba lyrics adopted street slang and discussed taboo subjects including the informal economy of hustling, linked to the growth in tourism. Built of the same materials as salsa, timba followed a distinct path. Most important was a restructuring of the classic Cuban dance music around explicitly Afro-Cuban rhythms and a much more experimental approach to rhythm in general. Batá or rumba variants were as likely to form the central rhythmic arguments as the classic son tumbaos. Timba also built on on the funk-fusion sound of the experimental jazz group Irakere.

NG La Banda Santa Palabra:

Bacalao con Pan:

Timba was the alter-ego of Buena Vista Social Club, young and edgy, informed by Cuban jazz, by Afro-Cuban folklore, and often played by musicians who had been trained in conservatories. The point is not that this music was more authentic, somehow free of the influence of marketing. The interplay of international promotion and local musical scenes helped produce a wide range of musical options in and around Cuba over the past twenty-five years, including a dizzying array of musical talent. The upcoming UMS concert offers a glimpse at this world.  Alfredo Rodríguez is a conservatory trained technical virtuoso, with a background in Cuban popular music, who grew up idolizing Kieth Jarrett. He experiments at the boundaries between straight ahead jazz and Cuban jazz.

…y bailaría la negra:

Pedrito Martínez is a percussionist who played with Munequitos de Matanzas when that band was already making regular commercial tours around the world. He explores timba and Cuban funk fusion in a small quartet format, just a keyboard, bass, and bongó player to accompany his congas. Both musicians continue to rethink the music they grew up with in conversation with the wide range of international musicians and styles they embody.

Que palo:

Please do not smirk the next time someone tells you that they love of Buena Vista Social Club. Just smile, and tell them about the concert you just saw by Alfredo Rodríguez. Nod and lend them your copy of Pedrito Martínez’s new record with its amazing cover of of Robert Johnson.

Travelling Riverside Blues:

Artist Interview: Cuban Pianist Alfredo Rodríguez

Photo: Alfredo Rodríguez. Photo by Anna Webber.

Alfredo Rodríguez is a Cuban pianist and composer. He was born in Havana, Cuba, in 1985. With a well-known Cuban singer as his father, it is no wonder that he has been surrounded by music his entire life. He started studying at the Manuel Saumell Cuban Conservatory at the age of 7, and has been playing and creating music ever since.

Alfredo spent some time talking with us about his experiences in Cuba and in the United States, his thoughts about a musician’s life, and his upcoming work. He’ll perform in Ann Arbor on March 14, 2014 as part of a unique double-bill with Pedrito Martinez Group.

Annick Odom: We know that you’ve played in Ann Arbor and Detroit before, but we’re really excited to have you playing for the first time with UMS in March. Your work draws on jazz and Cuban music traditions. How do you balance these in your own music?

Alfredo Rodríguez: Well, I started as a part of his [my father’s] band when I was very young, about 13. We used to play popular music, music from the traditions of Cuba and his compositions as well. I combined that kind of performing, that kind of ambiance, with the classical school.

In Cuban music, there is a lot of improvisation, but I didn’t know much about improvisation in classical music at that time. My uncle gave me an album called The Köln Concert by Keith Jarrett [the legendary jazz pianist], and that got me into improvisation.

I was used to Cuban traditional music and classical composers like Johann Sebastian Bach, and also to Latin composers. After that CD though, I found the music of many of the pioneers of the be-bop era, a lot of different musicians, mostly from the United States. I was falling in love with the way those composers and instruments created music.

AO: We presented Keith Jarrett in 2000! What exactly about that recording drew you in so much? What made you so excited about improvisation?

AR: Well, my uncle gave me that CD with an idea in mind, because he was not very involved in piano music. He gave me that CD because he knew that I was very into that world. But I wasn’t expecting anything it. I just put it on. It was a great introduction for me because Keith Jarrett had that touch and that knowledge about classical music, and he shows a lot of those influences in his playing. It was a good introduction for me to improvisation and jazz music, too, of course.

AO: You said that you played a lot with your father while growing up and that you played a lot of popular music in Cuba. How would you say that you’ve individualized yourself from previous generations of musicians from Cuba?

AR: I guess I would say that [the musicians in my generation] are changing every day. We have different experiences every day. [My generation] grew up in a different situation than the generations before us in Cuba. We had different problems, different ways of living, [different] points of view. And of course those differences are the reasons that music changes too.

What I like to do with my music is to just express the present, just express how I am feeling, what I am going through in that exact moment. I guess what I am trying to say is that everybody always has something to say, and it is always different for everybody. And that kind of honesty is what I look for in terms of music, and in terms of living my life.

So it’s very simple for me, I just try to express who I am when I play my music and compose. I try and show my [Cuban] roots and also the transculturation that I have been living since I have been here in the United States.

AO: Do you find yourself playing any differently since you moved to the US or do you play pretty similarly to when you lived in Cuba?

AR: No, I’ve definitely changed. The United States is a different country with different culture, which has been a very positive process for me in terms of learning.

[Cuba] is an island, and due to the country’s political history we have been only around Cubans for more than 50 years. The culture that we have been creating for so many years is very unique and powerful because we are surrounded by Cubans, but at the same time, it’s contradictory because we haven’t had the opportunity to have confrontation and transculturation with different cultures.

I wanted to know different cultures and meet different people with different points of view so that I could incorporate all of that into myself and reflect it in my music.

AO: Let’s talk about your upcoming concert here in Ann Arbor. Who will be coming with you? What will you perform? Can you also talk a little bit about your upcoming album?

AR: Actually I am releasing my next album The Invasion Parade on March 4th, which is going to be very, very close to the concert [in Ann Arbor on March 14]. I am going to be featuring the same trio that I had for my album at the concert. We are featuring different artists, but the main trio that I perform with is Peter Slavov, a Bulgarian bass player, and Henry Cole, a drummer from Puerto Rico.

We are going to be performing the music on this upcoming album as well as music from the past. But to be honest, music is very natural and spontaneous for us, so we just like to play songs that will fit in the moment that we are living.

It’s difficult to say exactly what songs we’ll play or even what the music is going to sound like. I guess what I mean to say is that we have the message that we want to tell people: 70% of my music is improvisation, and the other part is rhythm. So it’s kind of unexpected, and in that way, we learn more from ourselves.

AO: You’re sharing the bill with Pedrito Martinez. Have you ever played with him before?

AR: It’s very funny because Pedrito is part of my album [The Invasion Parade], too. I love his playing! Pedrito is one of the musicians coming out of Cuba that I admire so much because of his incorporation of our culture into his vocals and percussion. And speaking of my album, it also features Esperenza Spalding, and horn players from Cuba and Puerto Rico. But yeah, speaking of Pedrito, we have a really, really close relationship in both in terms of music and friendship.

AO: It seems that you are already thinking a lot about the upcoming months, but where do you see your music going even further into the future?

AR: That is a good question. To be honest, I don’t think too much about the future. What I can share with you is something that I’ve been working on since the past, until today, which is creating music.

I am also currently writing a lot of music for the symphony. The premiere of my first symphonic work will be this year in November, and I will be performing one of my compositions with an orchestra at the Barcelona Jazz Festival. And I’m working on new music for my trio and my upcoming CDs.

I do it [compose music] because I just need it. It’s like water for me. If I am inspired, I write something. I’m just composing music, doing what I like to do. I feel very fortunate about that because I just have the opportunity to live from what I love to do, and I am very grateful for that.

Interested in more? Check out Alfredo’s new album or get tickets to his performance with Pedrito Martinez Group in Ann Arbor on March 14, 2014.