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Reportages Bebo Valdés. Illustration: Claudia Soto Pickney / OnCuba. Bebo Valdés. Illustration: Claudia Soto Pickney / OnCuba.

The art of Bebo of Cuba

This text appeared originally published in OnCuba magazine. On the occasion of the centenary of the birth of Bebo Valdés (and the 77th birthday of his son Chucho), we decided to rescue him and that it would work as a tribute to our publication to that redeemed giant of Cuban music.

This is a sketch, a glimpse that barely suspects the man who was Bebo Valdés. For this text to acquire full dimension, would be necessary a couple of voices that are missing here, it would be necessary to go to the native Quivicán, to Sweden (second homeland), to all those places and people who left their mark. It was not possible, but - paraphrasing Ana Prieto about Borges - between the memories, the truth and the echo, the only testimony is his music. Even so, the need for a text like this arises stubbornly and imperiously.

"Bebo's life is a movie. He learned to play the piano on a table with the keys drawn. To talk to him was to meet Cachao, the guaguancó, Bill Evans, Rachmaninov and jazz. Right now I'm looking at a picture of him holding Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole. Bebo is the Cuban music of the 20th century. "

Javier Limón

Bebo Valdés was a strange man. Giant of Afro-Cuban jazz in the era in which the paths of the genre were forged, the first image of him that his acquaintances evoke is, however, that of a simple type, a gentleman of the old school. It turns out that it is one of the few cases in the history of art in which mastery gives way to personality not by its excesses-Hemingway-nor by its originality -Woody Allen- but by being, simply, a good man.

A good man who, however, could not give up the freedom to play the piano without restrictions. A good man who settled in a Nordic and distant land, in which he remained for thirty years quietly ruminating his art, in the tranquility of the salons. Some rooms that never knew they had a living legend. A good man who released everything as long as they let him play in peace.

The story of Bebo Valdés, which is inseparable from that of Cuban music, began a long time ago, with lustful Europeans and African slaves mixed to infinity, with a piano that was sweetly violated by a frantic and untranslatable drum. To this permanently unfinished merger came in the 30s Dionisio Ramón Emilio (Bebo) Valdés Amaro with the intention of having fun, without knowing that he would get his name stamped on the plaque of the founding fathers.

It was the time of Havana at night, that gigantic club where tourists accompanied alcohol, gambling and drugs with the soundtrack of the impetuous Cuban musicians. At that time, Bebo was making inroads into jazz, absorbing everything he could from his admired Art Tatum and Bill Evans, but he also nourished "on the street routine, the boogie-boogie, the danzón, the rumba", as some time.

Being a teenager, Caballón -as he was also known for his tall stature- enrolls with his childhood friend Israel López Cachao in the creation of an orchestra in which the brilliant bassist cooked the future mambo. While he continues his studies, he is making his way as a pianist in formations such as Wilfredo García Curbelo and Julio Cueva. In this combination of academia and the university of the street, a unique way of playing germinates, a style that allows any music lover to distinguish the arrangements and interpretations of Bebo Valdés.

The year 1947 or 1948 - this data, like many others in his life, is quite imprecise - means Bebo's first trip after his African roots. Visit Haiti; there he feels his catholic soul resonate with those rituals in which he does not believe, but they connect him with a vibrant past, as his own as Saumell's compositions and as contagious as the guaguancó of the Santa Amalia cast, but even more ancient, an arcane of indecipherable attractive. A santero who met premonitionally reveals that this trip to the origins will have other destinations and that one day he will visit Salvador de Bahia, that piece of Africa inserted in American soil, in which the Yoruba religion lives beyond the passage of time.

The breath of the orishas seems to drive Caballón. He is hired at the Tropicana Club, the mecca of jazz in Cuba at the time and works as a pianist and arranger for Rita Montaner and Armando Romeu's Orchestra. Ten years will work in Tropicana, and in that period - the so-called golden decade of Cuban music - there will be no musical phenomenon that is alien to him.

Since the end of the 40s, the restless drummer Guillermo Barreto -vecino, friend and bandmate of Bebo- organized on Sunday afternoons or at dawn after the Tropicana show, some improvisation sessions in which musicians from the patio and foreigners they gave free rein to their creativity mixing jazz with Afro-Cuban rhythms. The downloads could last indefinitely; a theme, sometimes just a riff, was enough for an avalanche of musicians and instruments to happen endlessly, reaching a number of times the day, afternoon and night. To the downloads, in addition to regulars such as Peruchín, Negro Vivar, Walfredo de los Reyes, Israel López Cachao, Niño Rivera and Tata Güines were joined by Roy Haynes, Kenny Drew, Sarah Vaughan and Richard Davis, who, in their wake by Tropicana, were subjugated by the style and interpretative capacity of Cuban musicians and their rhythms.

The discharges became custom in the Tropicana properties (and were assimilated by a whole series of genres and styles as was the filin), but the lack of interest and lack of vision of the labels had not taken them into account. Until one night in late 1952.

While Bebo rested in a cabaret in Havana with other members of the Tropicana Orchestra, Irving Price, owner of a record store in Galiano Street, tells him that Norman Granz - a mythical American producer, founder of jazz monuments such as Jazz at the Philarmonic and the legendary label Verve- is in Havana, surprised by the fact that Cuban musicians play jazz. They make the pertinent coordinations and in the Panart studio, among the rums and beers of rigor, Bebo and a group of Tropicana musicians recorded the disc Cuban!, in which they played several classic jazz songs, passed through the Cuban filter, and a colossal improvisation from a riff played by Caballón, which would take the name of With little coconut, a classic of the downloads of Afro-Cuban jazz of all times. This album and these musicians had the privilege of entering the history of music as the first recording of a Cuban download.

From this golden age also dates his orchestra Sabor de Cuba, a full-fledged jazzband, with twenty musicians, among whom were a singer named Beny Moré and a sixteen-year-old pianist, who because of his high stature and ability to handle himself in the piano with razor-sharp fingers, there was no doubt of its origin: the career of the other Valdés, Chucho, began.

Leonardo Acosta tells his essential A century of jazz in Cuba:

"In 1952 the pianist, composer and arranger Bebo Valdés started what could have been a musical revolution similar to the one carried out by Machito and Mario Bauzá in New York or Dámaso Pérez Prado in Mexico. However, what would have been the revolution of the Batanga rhythm has remained only as an interesting historical curiosity and a pleasant memory for those who lived it. (...) Bebo seemed like the right man to make a new fusion between jazz and Afro-Cuban, overcoming the growing commercialization of mambo and the limitations of the chachachá. "

In the RHC Cadena Azul studios, on June 8, 1952, Bebo released the batanga rhythm, which was intended to become the rival of the mambo. The afternoon of the debut, Bebo approached the microphone and explained that batanga comes from the African batá and thong voices. The style differed fundamentally from the mambo in that it had a section of trombones and a horn - "to fill the gap between the acute and grave planes that created the orchestrations of Damaso," said Bebo- and his great contribution was the new combinations rhythms introduced in Cuban percussion, when introducing a batá drum for the first time in an orchestra, an instrument that had remained isolated from the scenes, a product of the usual racism in Cuba, in which it was considered a thing of black sorcerers.

The orchestra of the batanga, which caused a stir among the public in its debut, appeared during the following three Sundays but, in the words of Bebo, "the batanga died a natural death". The sponsors and the record companies preferred to bet for sure and no promotion was made to the new rhythm, which could not compete in the taste of the dancers with the sonic simplicity and danceable chachachá.


After the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in January 1959, Bebo-unable to adapt to the new Cuba that was emerging, in which he went from the debauchery of cabaret nights and downloads of the 50's to having to account for his repertoire - Make the decision to leave the game. One afternoon in 1960 he came to the studio to record a material he was collecting with the intention of taking it to Mexico. A guy in a red shirt approached him and identified himself as a militiaman.

- We're going to the square, they're going to give a speech- he said.
- Sorry, I have a session now, "replied Caballón.
- There is no recording session, everything is suspended.
- I'm not going to any tribune, I'll see you on television at home.
- You must go, comrade.
- I'm not your comrade, I'm a friend or an enemy or nothing.
- Listen, you are in the wrong way, if you do not enter the bus you will be in trouble - he said while pointing to a vehicle that was parked next to two trucks, ready to go to the square.

Bebo did not get on the bus. Shortly after, after coordinating with his friend and manager Roger Frederick Reiter, he would leave the country along with the singer Rolando Laserie for a non-existent tour in Mexico. Gone are his wife Pilar Valdés and five children. It was a difficult, heartbreaking decision, but the scruples were overcome by the pressure not to "feel free to play the music that I wanted," he once said.

After a journey that took him through Mexico, the United States and Spain (where he works with the Chilean singer Lucho Gatica), Bebo joins the Lecuona Cuban Boys. Together with this orchestra, it goes back to Europe; They play in England, France, Holland, Germany, Finland. They arrive in cold Sweden on April 17, 1963. There they give political asylum, the perfect destination for that parsimonious and refined black. Bebo was born in Cuba, it could be said, to write a part of the history of Latin jazz; his true biography of an earthly man, on the other hand, was waiting for him in Stockholm.

In Sweden you will know what absolute cold is. For six months he will work in a club of the Arctic Circle, and will fight the ice at the stroke of endless improvisations; Here he dies of cold, but finds enough tranquility to play his music.

The Lecuona Cuban Boys are hired by Ove Hahn, the artistic head of the Gröna Lund amusement park, to play at the Tyrol restaurant. That bunch of handsome Latin men attracted many girls who were looking at the musicians, among which stood out a Caribbean giant of six feet four inches who placed his immense hands on the keys of the piano with an incredible tenderness.

There was discovered by a beautiful 18-year-old girl, who took a fancy to the 40-year-old who played songs from the classical repertoire and from time to time other strange things that he did not understand, but who told him about a place in the tropics where the night it did not stop, where dance and music crawled everywhere.

Rose-Marie Pehrsonse insisted that this Cuban would be her man, and that on the nights of the next forty-five years she would play the variations of the jazz standars that so upset her. And Bebo, always gallant, would please her; much later, she slipped her name into several compositions, to bring her closer to the magic of the Havana nights that Rose-Marie could not meet.

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Over the next thirty years Bebo Valdés will be just a memory in the minds of his contemporaries, a legend that only jazz fans and those who lived the intense Cuba of casinos and cabarets will know. They are gray years like the Nordic winter, in which he has to play relentlessly versions of the Beatles, hits of the pop world and American jazz in hotels and cruises. Play the piano in ballet classes. Sometimes he thinks about getting into a taxi driver, but once again the decision to do what he likes prevails.

Despite the silence of the media, he always has a notebook next to the piano and in the rooms to record the melodies that come to his head. If you do not write them down, they go away irremissibly; others may come, but those melodies - like the loves of the boleros that you like so much - do not come back.

In 1994, Paquito D'Rivera, moved by who knows what orisha and urged by disquero commitments that could not meet, calls Caballón.

- I drink, for what existed between you and my father, help me with this because I know you can do it and fast.
- I'm out of that. Paquito, he makes a bundle of years that I do not compose anything. Maybe if you give me more time ... - Valdés replied.
- But do you have ideas?
- Yes, ideas, I have a few.
- Well, put that to me.

Bebo started to review his material and in a 36-hour marathon he mounted several pieces with his arrangements for nine instruments. Although initially the album was for Paquito, he decided that it was time for Bebo to ride again. In a study from Germany, in just three days, D'Rivera produces Bebo rides again, a compilation of classic songs from the Cuban repertoire and compositions by Bebo himself. He has not wasted his time in these years Bebo Valdés; consoles collect the wisdom of prodigious hands, a lesson patiently aged. At 76, Bebo tastes better than ever.


Fernando Trueba is not only a well-known Spanish filmmaker, but also a confessed fan of Latin jazz since the disco in his eighties fell into his hands Blowin by Paquito D 'Rivera. Trueba's passion for the genre led him to shape an old ambition: to see the history of the music he loves so much captured in a film. And it is impossible to review Latin jazz without counting on Bebo Valdés.

Trueba plans a meeting of giants through the movie Calle 54, before it was too late - his vision intuitive, a few months after filming the film died the contrabajista Israel López Cachao -. Film about music, the cinema is a mere vehicle for the expression of another powerful art.

The movie allowed Bebo to recall the old days of the Tropicana downloads; After decades he played again with his old colleagues and met several of the best followers of Afro-Cuban jazz.

From Calle 54 -And by the hand of Fernando Trueba and Nat Chediak-, the career of Bebo Valdés is reborn as if it were a young pop star. Record The taste of Cuba with his longtime partners, Israel López Cachao and Patato Valdés, a record with which he won the first of nine Grammy awards he won in the following years.

The version of Lágrimas negras who play Bebo and Cachao in Calle 54 He came to the flamenco singer Diego El Cigala, and through a paella organized by Trueba, the Cuban musician and the Spanish met. The project emerged right there with a basic premise: detach from their respective origins. Bebo told El Cigala: "You're not a gypsy, I'm not going to be a black man from Cuba." The result was the album Lágrimas negras, an unforgettable rereading of great classics of Latin popular music.

Shortly after he becomes the protagonist of the film The miracle of Candeal (again Fernando Trueba), where, among many other things, he travels to the favelas of Salvador de Bahia to rediscover his African origins. In Brazilian land evokes a distant and almost forgotten conversation with a Haitian santero. The prophecy took six decades to be fulfilled, but when it happens, Bebo understands a little more the hidden ways of Santeria. He is too old to start believing in the orishas, ​​but he can not avoid giving them a respectful thought.

Creator of the music and source of inspiration at the same time of the animated film Chico and Rita -Nominated for the Oscar in 2012-, Bebo is poetically portrayed in a beautiful film that honors, once again, the work of those musicians who created the meeting of jazz and Cuban rhythms.

At 87 Bebo Valdés steps for the first time the legendary club Vanguard Village. The regulars of the place, for whom the pianist is, if at all, a remote reference to the time of the bop, and they were accustomed instead to the executions of his son Chucho with his agile style, are immersed in an atmosphere of sweet grace, wrapped in the familiarity of the notes dismissed by the sharp fingers of the octogenarian, which gives a content concert, without shrillness, a perfect performance by an old interpreter, a reminder of the times when jazz was not the trivial desire to excel.

Ben Ratliff says: "while Chucho -for whom the club is a family space- plays with fierceness, quickly, it would be said that he is possessed; Bebo played gently, as if he were in a room full of friends. "

In 2011 he was appointed along with Chucho Doctor Honoris Causa of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, the culmination of his renewed career and his indispensable contribution to jazz.

"This is a surprise. I did not expect these awards at this point, "he says every time he is awarded a new prize, which he receives with the same simple gesture with which he thanked the scant applause in the Swedish halls where he worked anonymously for decades.


Ilustración: Joshep Ros,

Illustration: Joshep Ros.

More than once the bad joke has been said that the greatest legacy of Bebo Valdés is to be Chucho's father. Leaving aside the heaviness of the joke, it would be absolutely naive to discard the importance that Chucho Valdés has for the jazz world, who probably would not be the same if his father were someone else. A more accurate equation - less comical but more real, more poetic - should say that because there is a Bebo, there is a Chucho Valdés.

The relationship between father and son has been little analyzed, as in fact the life of most of the living Cuban artists has been little analyzed. Hence we have to suspect, guess, fill the spaces from the notorious facts. Thus we can think of an abrupt distancing from the year 1960, in which Bebo definitively leaves the country. For many decades, father and son will be reunited at jazz festivals, clubs, like two old acquaintances who calibrate themselves from meeting to meeting. In those years, Chucho became a jazz giant and Bebo patiently and anonymously ruminated his knowledge, at the same time that he forever fell in love with an 18-year-old girl.

After a tense encounter in 1978 at Carnegie Hall, where Bebo went to listen to Paquito D 'Rivera in Irakere and ended up running into Chucho, the melting of the father-son relationship began, who were 18 years without even speaking. Little by little they were reestablishing bonds that were hardly the same, but they were preferable to total separation.

In November 2005, at the request of Chucho, Bebo and his wife move to Benalmádena, Málaga. Maybe you see this as the last chance to have a more time with your father, that father who went too far too long. Little is known of what happens on the hilltops of Benalmádena, but it can be assumed that this reunion does not serve as a reconciliation; both are now a pair of old, tied in that homogeneous strip that is the third age. I drink, Alzheimer's disease for a while, should not make things much easier.

In the summer of 2012 Rose-Marie Pehrson dies. Although they have not finished tying the ends of the father-son relationship, Bebo-a gentlemanly man of custom-has not the slightest interest in leaving his wife alone for so long. In February his Swedish sons take him back to Stockholm (against Chucho's will); Alzheimer's has almost completely degenerated his system.

At dawn on March 21, 2013, a Bebo Valdés very weakened by pneumonia dreams that he is in a park in Stockholm and that a young girl with dark hair looks at him in ecstasy. That same day he dies. The pianist has settled into the arms of Rose-Marie, back again to the cold meadows of Stockholm, away again from Chucho, separated father and son this time until the final reunion in the hell circle of the jazz players, a club in which the download never ends.

Rafa G. Escalona Padre de una revista de música. Procrastinador profesional. Su meta es ser DJ de una emisora en la madrugada. Príncipe del aleatorio. More posts

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