Along with the brilliant composer, band leader and tres player Arsenio Rodríguez, Israel "Cachao" López must be considered among the most significant and influential innovators in the history of Cuban music. With the recent passing of virtuoso percussionists Carlos "Patato" Valdés and Tata Güines, Cachao's death, on March 22 from kidney failure, is another loss to the ever-dwindling group of artists who, with creative flair and sophistication, transformed older forms of Cuban music into a global powerhouse of sound.
During the 1930s, while Rodríguez was reworking folklyric ditties from the countryside into smoldering nightclub fare, Cachao, collaborating with his older brother Orestes, began deconstructing the stately but stiff danzón, injecting elements of the rootsier son songform, while adding syncopation as well as open spaces for extended vamping. The result of these dual innovations by Rodríguez and the López brothers became known at first as nuevo ritmo. By the early 1950s, dives and dance floors throughout Havana, New York, Mexico City, San Juan, and beyond, were crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with frenzied fans—loyal subjects in the kingdom of Mambo.
• Written by Orestes, arranged by Cachao, this danzón from Antonio Arcaño y Sus Maravillas (1944) was one of the first compositions of the nuevo ritmo. (A violin player then with Arcaño's group, Enrique Jorrín, is credited by some as being the first to slow down the mambo to a more danceable pace. His invention? The cha-cha-chá.)
[Three MP3s and two video clips after the jump]
Calling Cachao the best bass player in his family is no small praise, considering that more than 40 members of the extended López clan all thwacked, bowed and thrummed the strings of the curvaceous upright. (Orestes's son, Orlando "Cachaito" López, is the bassist with the Buena Vista Social Club group.) In 1931, as a 12-year-old, Cachao became the bassist with the Havana Philharmonic, standing on a crate in order to see the conductor. He performed with that organization for the next 30 years, while also gigging with dance bands and conjuntos. Over those years, Cachao authored thousands of compositions and arrangements, but just as significantly, he revolutionized the role of the string bass. Contemporaneous with pioneering jazz bassist Jimmy Blanton, he liberated the bass from being a mere time-keeper, elevating its status on the bandstand as legitimate solo voice, a contributor of melodic and harmonic complexity.
Inspired by the infusion of creative energy he heard in American jazz, Cachao transformed Cuban music again, beginning in 1957, with the introduction of open-ended improvisation and a jam-session approach, a coalescing of Afro-Cuban rhythms and jazz sensibilities into a new form called descarga. A collection of short, expository performances called Descargas en Miniature, which brought together a studioful of the best musicians at every instrument, became the touchstone for a revolutionary movement in music that changed the course of popular Latin music forever.
Trombon Criollo (MP3)
• Recorded in Havana in 1957, this famous track features the trombone star Generoso "Tojo" Jiménez.
Pa-Pa Bajo (MP3)
• Taken from a 1961 session in New York, this number features Cachao's magnificent bass playing.
Cachao left Cuba for Spain in 1962, then arrived in New York two years later to find the Latin music world—all the established Afro-Cuban jazz bands as well as a nascent salsa scene—enthralled with the descarga hybrid. Over night, he become one of the most in-demand bassists in the city and had extended stays in the ground-breaking orchestras of Machito, José Fajardo, Tito Rodriguez, Tito Puente and many others. (In Ned Sublette's comprehensive book Cuba and Its Music, he quotes Cachao saying, "One time I tried to count all the bands I'd played in and lost count at 248.")
Cachao moved to Las Vegas where he lived and performed throughout the 1970s until a gambling habit necessitated a change of scene. With his wife, Ester, he settled in Coral Gables, Florida, and there the music stopped, save for the odd local club date or wedding gig. In 1989, actor Andy Garcia crossed paths with Cachao in Miami and from that point on, devoted himself to reviving the maestro's career, producing four albums and two documentary films, most notably 1993's Cachao… Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos, which introduced Cachao's genius to a new generation of Latin music fans.
Footage of the recording session for Cachao's Grammy-winning record ¡Ahora Si!, produced by Garcia, was included with the album on a DVD. Watch some of it here:
His obscurity banished, Cachao continued to tour and record into his late 80s, extending a vital musical career that began at the age of 9. For one of his last recording sessions, he teamed up with fellow legends—and octogenarians—pianist Bebo Valdés and conga player Carlos "Patato" Valdés.
El Marañón (MP3)
• From the 2004 trio record El Arte de Sabor with Bebo and Patato.
Finally, here's a breathtaking clip of Cachao and old pal Bebo Valdés from 2000 performing the evergreen "Lágrimas Negras":
Another tour and more recording sessions were in the works when Cachao took ill earlier this month. He had just returned from the Dominican Republic, where he had received a Lifetime Achievement award.