Saturday, March 22, 2008

Cachao Obituary

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Posted on Sat, Mar. 22, 2008
Legendary musician 'Cachao' dies at 89
Known to the world simply by his nickname -- Cachao -- bassist, composer and bandleader Israel López died Saturday morning at Coral Gables Hospital of complications resulting from kidney failure. He was 89.

Cachao was one of the most important living figures in Cuban music, on or off the island, and ''arguably the most important bassist in twentieth-century popular music,'' according to Cuban-music historian Ned Sublette. He not only innovated Cuban music but also influenced the now familiar bass lines of American R&B, ''which have become such a part of the environment that we don't even think where they came from,'' Sublette said.

Cachao and his brother Orestes are most widely known for their late-1930s invention of the mambo, a hot coda to the popular but stately danzón that allowed the dancers to break loose at the end of a piece.

It debuted in a chic Havana night club -- and flopped.

''Nothing happened,'' Cachao told The Miami Herald in 1992. ``Here was this 180-degree turn. The whole orchestra was out of work for six months after that because people didn't understand that type of music.''

Typically modest, Cachao always credited bandleader Dámaso Pérez Prado for making the beat world-famous in the 1950s.

''People think there could've been some antagonism,'' Cachao said. But ``if it weren't for him, the mambo wouldn't be known around the world.''

A possibly more important musical moment took place in 1957, when Cachao gathered a group of musicians in the early morning hours, pumped from playing gigs at Havana's popular nightclubs, for an impromptu jam at a recording studio. The resulting descargas, known to music aficionados worldwide as Cuban jam sessions, revolutionized Afro-Cuban popular music. Under Cachao's direction, these masters improvised freely in the manner of jazz, but their vocabulary was Cuba's popular music. This was the model that wold make live performances of Afro-Cuban based genres, from salsa to Latin jazz, so incredibly hot.

This majestic influence came from a man of sweet demeanor and unassailable sense of humor. Fronting his band at a fancy dance in Coral Gables when he was already in his late 80s, he seemed so frail that he had to lean his whole body on the contrabass to keep from falling. But his beatific smile and closed eyes proved that he was in heaven already, embracing his instrument like a lover, like a strong friend.

Yet he no longer owned a bass.

''That's outrageous,'' said jazz legend Charlie Haden when he heard this at the time. ``I'll give him one of mine.''

But a contrabass took up too much room in his small Coral Gables apartment. Besides, what need did he have to rehearse? Cachao carried his bass, his music, inside him.

A marvel of the 20th century, Cachao was born in 1918 in the same Havana house where Cuban poet and patriot José Martí was born. He was the youngest of three children in a family of distinguished musicians, many of them bassists -- around 40 and counting in his extended family.

As an 8-year-old bongo player, he joined a children's septet that included a future famous singer and bandleader, Roberto Faz. A year later, already on bass, he provided music for silent movies in his neighborhood theater, in the company of a pianist who would become a true superstar, the great cabaret performer Ignacio Villa, known as Bola de Nieve (Snowball).

His parents made sure Cachoa was classically trained, first at home and then at a conservatory. When he was 13, he joined his father and brother in the Orquesta Filarmónica de La Habana -- The Havana Philharmonic -- playing contrabass under the baton of guest conductors like Herbert von Karajan, Igor Stravinsky and Heitor Villa-Lobos. He had to stand on a box to reach the strings.

He was equally at home playing in a dance band, changing out of his coattails at the end of a concert to play with Arcano y sus Maravillas. When they weren't playing, Cachao and his brother created some 3,000 danzones.

''One day I was in my own home and I turned on the radio,'' he told The Miami Herald. 'And I heard a danzón that I liked. And I said `Who is that'? -- and at that moment, the announcer says it's mine.''

After a rich musical career in his home country, he left Cuba in 1962. His brother Orestes stayed on the island. As retribution for leaving, Cachao said, the Cuban government removed his name from all of his recordings, leaving only Orestes on the label. That, he said, was a ``big tragedy.''

Cachao eventually landed in Las Vegas because, as he admitted, ``I was a compulsive gambler.''

Though cured later in life, he nearly gambled away every penny until his wife whisked him away.

For a while, he had two distinct musical personae. In the New York salsa scene he was revered as a music god, with homage concerts dedicated to him, and records of his music produced by Cuban-music collector René López. In Miami, he was an ordinary working musician who would play quinceañeras and weddings, or back up dance bands in the notorious Latin nightclubs of the Miami Vice era.

It took a celebrity, Miami's own Andy García, to integrate his musical personality into one: that of a legendary master. In the '90s, García produced the recordings known as Master Sessions, accompanied by big concerts honoring his legacy. Cachao's star rose again.

But he remained a working musician, if at a much higher level of appreciation. Cachao continued to perform and record with all the energy of a much younger artist. Though already frail and distraught at the funeral of his fellow legend, trombonist Generoso Jiménez, in September 2007, he headlined a rollicking concert in Miami a week later.

Earlier this month, just days before he was hospitalized, the multiple Grammy winner was in the Dominican Republic receiving a lifetime achievement award. Cachao was planning an European tour in August with violinist Federico Britos, with whom he frequently collaborated.

The day before his death, Cachao told his friend Britos, ''When am I supposed to record with you again? I have to get out of bed.'' And he was in pre-production for a CD of new compositions.

''It was not only a great musician who died,'' said producer Emilio Estefan, who was at his bedside, ``but a great señor -- a gentleman. Even in his deathbed he would make sure his visitors felt at ease. He belonged to the people.''

Cachao, whose wife of 58 years, Ester Buenaventura López, died in 2004, is survived by their daughter María Elena López, grandson Hector Luis Vega and his nephew Daniel Palacio.

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