Long in Exile, a Mambo King Still Reigns

Long in Exile, a Mambo King Still Reigns

by Larry Blumenfeld

copyright © 2005 The Wall Street Journal
Reprinted with permission

Calle 54, a love letter of a documentary from Spanish director Fernando Trueba to the Latin-jazz community in 2000, was notable for its sweep — New York to Puerto Rico, Spain to Sweden — and its intimacy. We'd watch saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera replace a blown reed, catch a horse-and-buggy ride across Manhattan with Argentinean saxophonist Gato Barbieri, visit the last studio session by timbale master Tito Puente. The most satisfying scenes showcased Ramón (Bebo) Valdés, a towering but underappreciated pianist and arranger who left Cuba shortly after the Castro revolution and has lived half his life in relative obscurity in Sweden.

We could listen in on Bebo and his son, the celebrated pianist Jesús (Chucho), who has remained in Cuba all these years. ("You look like a big frog," Bebo ribbed Chucho, before a touching duo-piano performance.) Best of all was a tender duet by Bebo and his childhood friend, bassist Israel (Cachao) López, who also left Cuba decades ago and lives in the U.S.

"It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship," Mr. Trueba says of his own introduction to Mr. Valdés. For the pianist, now 86, that union has led to a late flowering of his recording career that has brought Grammy Awards and fresh critical praise. Mr. Trueba and Nat Chediak, a Cuban-American music historian and producer, established Calle 54 Records with a primary purpose to record Mr. Valdés in a variety of settings. The album El Arte del Sabor, in 2001, found the pianist in the company of Cachao, Mr. D'Rivera, and Carlos (Patato) Valdés. Two 2004 releases tackled fresh challenges: On We Could Make Such Beautiful Music Together, Mr. Valdés played duets with Uruguayan violinist Federico Britos; on Lgrimas Negras, he collaborated with Spanish flamenco singer Diego El Cigala.

The new two-CD/DVD Bebo de Cuba is the most complete document of the scope and depth of Mr. Valdés's music, not to mention the realization of a personal dream. On the first disc, "Suite Cubana," he leads an all-star Afro-Cuban orchestra of New York's most sought-after players through an elegant array of classic Cuban styles. One section highlights the mambo, which many claim to have been invented by Cachao and his brother, Orestes; another section focuses on the "batanga," Mr. Valdés's 1940s innovation that introduced African-derived bata drums to Cuban popular music. The second disc, "El Solar de Bebo," distills Mr. Valdés's band to a nonet for loose-limbed descargas, or jam sessions, recalling not just Mr. Valdés's early recordings but also the squat, cramped housing units where the pianist first encountered such musical exchanges.

The accompanying 23-minute DVD, "New York Notebook," trails the 6-foot-4 pianist as he walks through the streets of midtown Manhattan and follows him into the studio, where he seems limber and liberated as he works on a complicated tune with his percussionists. His eyes alight when the big band comes in full force to begin his suite: This is precisely the sort of orchestra Mr. Valdés might have assembled had he resettled in New York. Through a voiceover drawn from a radio interview, Mr. Valdés reminisces in great detail about his childhood in the small town of Quivicán, some 20 miles from Havana, about his first meeting with Cachao ("we were both wearing short pants"), and about the significance of the mambo ("Cuban music had timing but no syncopation before Cachao"). He explains how he composed his suite intermittently during the past decade on the many pads he keeps around his house to capture moments of inspiration.

There is a hardly a figure alive who embodies the past and present of Afro-Cuban music with more authority than Mr. Valdés. He came of age during a period of rapid musical change, when Cuban and American music intermingled in powerful ways. In Cuba and Its Music, author Ned Sublette places Mr. Valdés within the "greatest generation of Cuban piano stylists," describing how the big-band mambo arrangements devised by Mr. Valdés and his contemporaries"polyrhythmicized the jazz band," to use the sax section for systematic and pulsing counterpoint.

In 1948, Mr. Valdés began a decade-long tenure as pianist and arranger for Havana's famed Tropicana nightclub, leading the island's top players and working closely with visiting American stars. He performed with standard-bearing singers from both Cuba and the U.S.; Beny Moré sang with Mr. Valdés before forming his own band; Nat (King) Cole found phenomenal success singing in Spanish to his accompaniment. And Mr. Valdés was a player for the earliest known Cuban jazz recordings, 1952 descarga sessions for the Mercury label.

Despite his outward humility, "Bebo was the Quincy Jones of his day," says Mr. Chediak. "If you wanted to be in the jukeboxes, you went to Bebo to write you the charts. He had the Midas touch as an arranger and as a pianist too."

But Mr. Valdés left all that behind when he left Cuba in 1960, shortly after Fidel Castro took power. As did many Cuban exiles, he went briefly to Mexico. Visa complications kept him from coming to the U.S. at the invitation of percussionist Chano Pozo, who was then famously collaborating with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. While touring Europe, Mr. Valdés fell in love with a young Swedish woman, started a new family, and soon found himself resettled in Stockholm, where he played in hotel bars and on cruises.

He remained in relative obscurity until a decade ago, when at Mr. D'Rivera's urging, he recorded Bebo Rides Again for the German Messidor label. "I had always thought that when I got more established in my own career, I would go and record Bebo," Mr. D'Rivera recalled from his home in New Jersey. "I set up the date, and he wrote nine tunes in 36 hours. He was 76 at the time."

On the phone from his home in Stockholm, Mr. Valdés spoke energetically, and without a hint of regret for his years away from the spotlight. "The reason that I left Cuba," he says, "is that I worked hard to accomplish everything I did, and I refuse to be told what to do." It might have been nice to settle in the U.S., as so many of his fellow musicians had. He says, "But it came down to making a choice between my wife and family and my career. The thing about the career is that I can pick that up at any other time — and in fact I have."

Mr. Valdés shows no signs of slowing down. He'll be in Los Angeles in November for the Latin Grammy Awards, where his new CD is among those nominated in the Latin-jazz category. Then, he's off to New York for a rare U.S. club appearance at the Village Vanguard, in duet with Spanish bassist Javier Colina.

Yet Mr. Valdés grows wistful on the Bebo de Cuba DVD when he recalls Sunday rumbas and descargas in Havana. "That was the old Cuba, the one I left behind. It's a great thing that I still have it in my blood."

The warmth, pulse and passion of this new music prove it.

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