Lunch with Cachao

Originally published in 2004 in The Miami Herald’s Street Weekly

By Judy Cantor-Navas

Israel Lopez -- the legendary ''Cachao'' -- will soon turn 86, and he likes to talk about the good old days, what he refers to as ''the romantic era,'' when music was played by orchestras, not computers, and strangers greeted each other on the street. Installed at a corner table at La Casita Restaurant on SW Eighth Street, his cane leaning on a nearby wall, the master of acoustic bass and composer famously known for devising the mambo with his older brother, Orestes, ignores the menu for an hour to talk about his new album and reprise some of his favorite anecdotes.

These all take place in the Havana of his youth, where every night promised yet another revolution in music, and where he can boast of having performed with 200 orchestras in all, playing danzón, waltz, tango, and even, once, while wearing a Mexican hat. Bringing to life the musical Camelot that was the Havana of the first half of the 20th century, Cachao describes the city in which so much innovative and enduring music was conjured as a mystical place populated by Americans, Chinese, Spaniards, Arabs, Jews, and the strong African men,``shiny black, with blue eyes and teeth so white they looked pink, who lived to be 115 years old.''

Some of the stories Cachao tells today would have a familiar ring for anyone who's read interviews with the celebrated musician or seen Andy Garcia's 1992 documentary on his life. But in a raspy voice just audible under the lunchtime din of Coral Gables office workers and extended Cuban families, he draws out his sentences dramatically and chuckles at his own punch lines, making it seem as if he's just suddenly recalled these cherished chapters of his life after all these years. Something similar happens on !Ahora Sí!. His third CD produced by Garcia over the last decade, it's music that's not quite unexpected, but amazing just the same.

The album was recorded in 14 hours in Capitol Records' Los Angeles studios, a gathering of some 15 musicians that echoed the original descargas, or Cuban jam sessions, that Cachao and others instigated in '50s Havana.

''The idea then was to get a group of very potent musicians together,'' he says. ``When we finished [the first descarga in 1957], I told the musicians they should get a suit of armor on because the public was going to go ballistic. That music was crazy.''

!Ahora Sí! has more polish than that historic recording, but similarly flows seamlessly from one track to the next, allowing the instruments, as in a live performance, to be heard both individually and in force. The title track is an improvisational number that Cachao dashed off in the studio to honor the birth of Garcia's son, his first after three daughters.

The actor, who plays bongos with gusto on the album, also produced a DVD of the recording that comes packaged with the CD. In it, Garcia is seen sweaty and grinning, enjoying having gained entry into this club of astral musicians. They include sonero Lazaro Galarraga, Nelson Gonzalez on tres [the six-string guitar integral to acoustic Cuban son], and from Miami, violinist Federico Britos and Feliciano Gomez, the emotive trumpet player known as Pachu.

The album includes songs that the bassist and bandleader had long wanted to record, such as ''Si me pudieras querer (If You Could Love Me),'' composed by the inimitable pianist and singer Bola de Nieve, whom Cachao met when he joined an ensemble led by Bola that produced live music for silent movies. ''It was 1927 -- imagine that,'' Cachao marvels, going on about the drummer who got drunk during a Western and, to the disdain of the audience, made the sound of nine gunshots instead of the six fired by the hero in the movie. ''After 1930, sound came in and they didn't need our group anymore. Bola de Nieve continued with his music and I with mine.'' Cachao pays sublime tribute to his friends on this emotional instrumental track.

Cachao grew up in the Havana suburb of Guanabacoa. The Lopezes were a family of musicians famous for parties that lasted from night to noon, in sync with the ritual patio rumbas of their neighbors. ''It was totally African; there were a lot of Congo people, and those of the Yoruba tribe, they all lived in Guanabacoa,'' he says, proceeding to rattle off some words of the African Lukumi dialect he learned as a child.

''Queja Afrikana, (African Protest),'' written by Cachao, is an African mother's lament over the loss of her son to slavery. The second part of the song is comprised of an abakua rhythm, played at celebrations held by slaves on holidays when their Spanish owners gave them permission to play their drums. ``They allowed them to enjoy themselves for a week and that's where this song comes from.''
While that track might be a surprise for those who associate Cachao with strictly ballroom music, the album also inevitably includes a mambo. ''Mambo Cambio de Swing'' (Mambo Changed its Swing)'' starts the album on an up beat, and it's an excuse to address the storied subject that the musician seems not at all tired of discussing.

''What we were looking for was what no one had ever heard,'' says Cachao, recalling his collaborations with his late brother, with whom he wrote about 3,000 danzones, including those in the danzón-mambo style that brought the new rhythm to Cuban dance floors in the '30s. Cachao left for Spain in 1962 and later lived in New York and Las Vegas before settling in Miami. Orestes remained in Havana.
''We wanted to make music do a 360-degree turn,'' says Cachao. ''It was the same with the descarga. We were always doing something new.'' Cachao notes that he and his brother were propelled by the times' innovative spirit, something that he thinks is sadly in little evidence today.

''Music has really suffered, it's strayed from what music really is,'' he complains. ''Today, anyone is a musician, anyone is a singer, anyone is a composer. But that's not the way it is. Before, you had to study -- you went to the conservatory, you did things properly. Today, anyone writes a song and he thinks that it's good but it's not. Now they don't even sing, they pray. They're mumbling, not singing. I'd like to go around like that -- a tattoo of a snake on my arm, an earring, the shirt down to there, the pants pulled down,'' he says, scowling for maximum ghetto effect and pulling at the collar of his beige linen guayabera. ``Then they'd see what they look like. I read that the next thing is they're going to start wearing tunics, like Jesus Christ.''

Cachao does give props to the young musicians who play on his album, like inventive trombone player Jimmy Bosch. But he's not looking to others to carry the torch, just yet; he's full of plans. Cachao and a band of 12 embark on a European tour this week, and he's already envisioning his next project, maybe an album devoted to rhythms from the Congo, or Mexican and Cuban fusions.
''I always have something going for the future,'' Cachao says, finally picking up his menu to order lunch. ``I'm an adventurer. I guess it's the restlessness in me. I'm always inventing something.''