CUBA'S CACHAO IS KING OF TUMBAO
-Chuy Lopez. Sunday, October 24, 2004
"The bass is an instrument that in one word describes itself," says Israel "Cachao" Lopez, a virtuoso Cuban bassist considered the grandfather of salsa -- and creator of the mambo. "We're the depth of the music."
The role that the upright string bass plays is pivotal. When the instrument is plucked, the resulting deep resonant tones can swing a jazz rhythm section; when it's bowed, the sounds produced fill out a classical symphony. In Afro-Cuban music, the bass binds a complex polyrhythmic mesh of horns, strings, piano, guitars, voices and percussion that dance within a two- bar pattern called clave.
To hold it all together, bass players use a musical glue called tumbao (toom-bah-oo). And the undisputed king of tumbao is Cachao. On Saturday, Cachao , 86, returns to San Francisco to perform with his 17-piece CineSon All- Stars at the Gift Center Pavilion. Making a guest appearance on bongos will be movie actor-director Andy Garcia, who produced Cachao's latest album, "Ahora Si!" Proceeds from the concert will benefit Carnaval San Francisco and its Cultural Arts Education Program in the schools.
Garcia has been instrumental in putting Cachao in his rightful place as a pioneer and innovator of Cuban popular music. Garcia's 1993 documentary "Cachao ... Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos" (Like His Rhythm There Is No Other) traced Cachao's career from the child prodigy who began playing bass at age 9 -- in a family that boasts 36 double bassists -- to his invention of the mambo and descarga (jam session).
"What I bring is a certain grace obtained over the years," Cachao says in retrospect. "Like a cook who doesn't use measures anymore. He begins by tossing in salt, a branch of this, a grain of that and comes up with a great dish. However, after it is done he cannot tell you how he made it. That's the way it is with me. There are things that I do that I can't measure. They just happen."
Cachao's life has been full of things that "just happened." With his older brother Orestes, a bassist, cellist and pianist, he composed more than 2, 500 danzones for the string-and-flute charanga of Arcano y sus Maravillas, modernizing a French-derived aristocratic parlor music called danzon. One of their new ideas was a piece called "Mambo," which they recorded in 1938.
"The origins of 'Mambo' happened in 1937," Cachao says. "My brother and I were trying to add something new to our music and came up with a section that we called danzon mambo. It made an impact and stirred up people. At that time our music needed that type of enrichment."
Cachao's superb 1957 Pan Art album "Descargas En Miniature" was a jam session featuring conga drummer Tata Guines. This session liberated the musicians to improvise using tipico (popular) forms to play largely instrumental themes with vocal choruses.
"It was a spur-of-the-moment thing," Cachao recalls of the birth of the Latin jam session. "We were all working in nightclubs and had to wait until 4 a.m. to do the session. I believe the improvisation allowed us to investigate our thoughts and souls with respect to the music. I suggested ideas, but everybody did their own thing."
When the Cuban Revolution arrived, Cachao had to make some tough decisions. A child prodigy who began playing string bass in the Havana Symphony at age 13, a job he kept for 31 years, he had been a first-call contract musician all his life, playing theaters and nightclubs. His livelihood was suddenly radically transformed. He left for Spain in 1962, and then went to New York, where he joined the bands of Tito Rodriguez and later Eddie Palmieri. He first saw San Francisco when he played the Copacabana in North Beach with Rodriguez.
"Put on the train," says a little boy, just as Garcia is about to answer the question: "What has Cachao taught you about life?" Garcia pauses, and before answering makes sure his son Andres, who's almost 3, is settled in to play.
"With Cachao, his humbleness and complete devotion to his art are great examples to me as an artist," Garcia says. "He's loose and easygoing, but very serious about his work. With this new album, 'Ahora Si,' I tried to give him a concept and game plan. I fed him the idea and he sat down at the piano and did it at the drop of a hat."
Garcia acts as Cachao's artistic director on the combination CD/DVD on his own CineSon label, and he plays some fine bongos on the session. It was in San Francisco that Garcia met Cachao -- at the "Evolucion De La Musica Afro- Cubana" concert at Davies Symphony Hall. They sparked a friendship that Garcia says is now like father and son.
"There are certainly a lot of people who know Cachao's music, but very few that are as obsessed and devoted as I am," Garcia says. "I know what he is stylistically capable of, so that's why I'm a good producer for him."
The album's nine tracks feature an excellent cast of musicians from the United States, including Bay Area timbales master Orestes Vilato. "Cachao's picky about his musicians," Garcia says. "The rhythm section has been the same for all the albums we've done. He likes the cohesion created by musicians who know him and his music. It's a rare grouping."
Garcia is currently involved in postproduction on "The Lost City," a film he has directed that features Cachao playing a bandleader. Does the "maestro de maestros" (teacher of teachers) ever talk about being homesick for Cuba?
"All Cubans are homesick," Garcia says. "It goes with the territory. The tragedy of exile is exile. Cachao and I have a great sense of nostalgia for our homeland. No matter which side of the political spectrum you're on, the love for Cuba is extraordinary everywhere -- more so as an exile, because you're not there."
CACHAO AND THE CINESON ALL-STARS perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Gift CenterPavilion, 888 Brannan St., San Francisco. $35-$40. (415) 920-0125; www. carnavalsf.com.
Chuy Varela is a freelance writer.