Scarlet Mambo

Cachao, Mambo’s Inventor, Dies at 89 – NY Times

FYI, some good history reading. I found this NY Times article about the life of Israel Cachao López, the inventor of Mambo. This article should fill a lot of gaps in our understanding of the development of this music genre and dance.

Cachao, Mambo’s Inventor, Dies at 89

Published: March 24, 2008

Correction Appended

Israel Cachao López, the Cuban bassist and composer who was a pioneer of the mambo, died on Saturday in Coral Gables, Fla. He was 89 and lived in Coral Gables.

The cause was complications resulting from kidney failure, said Nelson Albareda, whose company, Eventus, was his manager.

Cachao, as he was universally known, transformed the rhythm of Cuban music when he and his brother, the pianist and cellist Orestes López, extended and accelerated the final section of the stately Cuban danzón into the mambo. “My brother and I would say to each other, ‘Mambea, mambea ahí,’ which meant to add swing to that part,” he said in a 2006 interview with The Miami Herald. The springy mambo bass lines Cachao created in the late 1930’s — simultaneously driving and playful — became a foundation of modern Cuban music, of the salsa that grew out of it, and also of Latin-influenced rock ’n’ roll and rhythm-and-blues. For much of the 20th century, Cachao’s innovations set the world dancing.

In the late 1950’s, he brought another breakthrough to Latin music with descargas: late-night Havana jam sessions that merged Afro-Cuban rhythms, Cuban songs and the convolutions of jazz. The mixture of propulsion and exploration in those recordings has influenced salsa and jazz musicians ever since.

Cachao’s 80-year performing career dated back to the silent movie era. Born in Havana in 1918, he came from a family of musicians and studied classical music. He began his public career at 8 years old, playing bongos in a children’s group. A year later, he had stood on a crate to play bass for the Cuban pianist and singer, Bola de Nieve, accompanying silent films. At 13, he became the bassist of the Havana Philharmonic, and he performed with the orchestra from 1930 to 1960. But he also played Havana clubs with his brother Orestes, working with a noted Cuban dance orchestra, Arcaño y Sus Maravillas, and with their own groups.

“His phrasing and his attack and how he functioned in the orchestra was unique to Cachao,” the actor Andy Garcia, who reinvigorated Cachao’s career by producing albums and documentaries in the 1990’s, said in a telephone interview on Sunday. “He always played bass with the bow in his hand. He would go back and forth. And as he was strumming with his fingers, he always had the bow in his hand and the bow would strike the bass percussively.”

It has been estimated that the López brothers wrote thousands of songs. They worked in established Cuban forms, like the elegant charanga and danzón, while testing new ideas. In 1937, they came up with the first mambo. It was a failure. “It was too fast for dancing, and we were six months without any work,” Cachao told The Miami Herald in 1995. “People didn’t like it. When we slowed it down, then it became danceable.”

The original mambos were for the string ensembles that played dances at the time. But big-band leaders picked up the rhythm and applied it to more aggressive brass arrangements — notably Dámaso Pérez Prado, who popularized the mambo worldwide. During the 1950’s and 1960’s, the mambo filled dance floors at New York City’s famous Palladium club and nationwide. In Havana, Cachao gathered top Cuban musicians for jam sessions or descargas, and a handful of recordings by Cachao y Su Ritmo Caliente — beginning with an after-midnight studio session in Havana in 1957 — became cornerstones of salsa.

Cachao left Cuba in 1962. He spent two years in Spain, then came to New York City, where he performed with mambo bands led by Tito Rodríguez, José Fajardo and Eddie Palmieri. For decades, he worked almost entirely as a sideman. He moved to Las Vegas — where he lived until he became, he said, a compulsive gambler — and then to Miami. Cachao made only three albums as a leader between 1970 and 1990. In Miami, he played at clubs, bar mitzvahs and airport hotel lounges, although he hadn’t been forgotten. Mr. Garcia said, quoting the Cuban saxophonist Paquito d’Rivera, “All the people who needed to know who Cachao was, knew.”

In 1990, Mr. Garcia — a longtime fan of Cachao’s music — organized recording sessions with leading Cuban musicians and a tribute concert for Cachao in Miami. “Master Sessions Volume I” and “Master Sessions Volume II” were made in five days; Volume I won a Grammy Award. The concert was also the basis for a documentary, “Cachao, Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos.”

Mr. Garcia went on to produce two more albums for Cachao, “Cuba Linda” (2000) and the Grammy-winning “Ahora Sí” (2004). Another documentary, “Cachao: Uno Más,” will be released next month. During one recording session, Mr. Garcia recalled, he suggested that Cachao write a descarga that started with a fugue. “He said, ‘Tell the musicians to go and take a break and bring me a sheet of paper and a pencil,’ ” Mr. Garcia recalled. Using a conga drum as a desk and whistling the melodies, Cachao wrote a four-part fugue during the break, and recorded it immediately.

With renewed recognition, Cachao spent the 1990’s and 2000’s touring and recording worldwide and collecting awards. He performed with younger admirers and with his Cuban contemporaries, including the pianist Bebo Valdés, joining Mr. Valdés on a Grammy-winning trio album “El Arte del Sabor.”

He received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Before he grew ill in early March, Cachao had planned a European tour and new recording sessions. His manager, Mr. Albareda, said that Cachao told him: “You’ve got years. I’ve got minutes.”

He is survived by a daughter, María Elena López and a grandson, Hector Luis Vega. Orestes López’s son, Orlando López, is nicknamed Cachaito, and has been the bassist with important Cuban groups including the Buena Vista Social Club.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: March 28, 2008
An obituary on Monday about Israel López, the Cuban bassist and composer known as Cachao, who was a pioneer of the mambo, misidentified the documentary about him that is to be released next month. It is “Cachao: Uno Más,” not “Cachao, Ahora Sí.” (“Ahora Sí” was a documentary released in 2004 with the CD of that name.)

Recent Posts
Recent posts
Blog Updates