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Interviews Photo taken from the SFJazz website.

That dare: interviewing Chucho Valdés (in Irakere's 50s).

In those first seventeen minutes and thirty-seven seconds many things happened in my body, but I remember best what happened in my head: the vain effort to make sense of the abstractions; the exaltation, the amazement that what seemed unbeatable grew. I didn't need to understand anything but I was tempted to want to understand everything: what kind of mass could tell you so much even if its languages were unknown to you? How had they done it, who and why in those "strange" ways? Had seventeen minutes and thirty-seven seconds really passed and I wanted to repeat?

The Misa Negra was also the beginning of a form of longing. Perhaps I have solved some questions but it is more certain that, twenty years later, the astonishment and impact persist. I think something similar happens to many of us with Irakere. It doesn't matter how many times one has listened to their songs or how much one understands, or doesn't understand, the musical language. Irakere digs to the root of emotions. It digs into every hard-to-reach corner of your intellect, inflames them and in its own way reconstructs: it installs in your ears a way of hearing.

Logical consequences, we would say, of the curiosity, the brilliance, and the ambition of its main creator, Chucho Valdés? Of course, and no less unusual for that. That Irakere was a lighthouse orchestra, a groundbreaking orchestra, is clear to us. How it did everything it did, I don't think we'll ever find out. It is a mysterious young woman with half a century behind her, Irakere. The modernity in her records remains. She does not, or not in an active way, because for almost two decades Chucho and his last members have turned to other loves. Not for that reason, of course not, and that is part of the reason why today they continue, as many of us do, to celebrate their formation (and also the reason why, after such a long time without playing together, Chucho Valdés, Paquito D'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval are back together again).

I was not there, neither in San Francisco nor in Miami, to see him, but we talked about it a little with Chucho Valdés. I usually look for a place very close to the piano every time I know he will play in the city where I live. I have not pursued him as much as his hands. And perhaps because I have begun to pay attention to what he says, with a care similar to the care I put into what he plays, I sense now that he achieves sometimes, with the words of others, what he also achieves with just a couple of chords: too much with too little. Sharp embellishments. Chucho Valdés is generous with the bad questions and shrewd with the difficult ones; capable both of turning a simple statement into an amusing story, and of redirecting with valuable anecdotes the path that could have led him to a mountainous territory. I speak not so much of my experience as of the words he has spoken to so many.

One would like to ask Chucho Valdés too many questions, but one will ask him very little. Even if he is generous with his time and you are lucky enough -as I was, and thanks to this magazine- to talk to him for an hour. Even if you follow to the letter the advice of those who repeat that with Chucho Valdés you only talk about music and that is more than enough. Because in part it is, of course. That he talks to you is almost enough. But in part no, because it seems clear to me that no art arises in a vacuum, or from art itself, and then no musician is just music and that's it. It is just easier, perhaps, to think that it is. To cultivate longing, as Irakere taught us. To savor what is possible and also the consequent intrigues. Besides, if Chucho Valdés managed to show me that dance music could contain inside so many genres that did not seem possible, perhaps he also incites me now to rethink -or reminds me that I have thought about it before- how many genres fit inside an interview, or where better to put it, in non-fiction, in fiction or in the middle? It's a pure side effect, as I said: it's not that right now it's necessary to understand, but one is tempted to want to understand.

Photo taken from the artist's Facebook profile.

Miami-New York, March 11, 2024.

MJ: I would like to propose that we start backwards. How does the meeting with Paquito D'Rivera and Arturo Sandoval happen? Who comes up with it and why?

CV: Look, we are really in a fiftieth anniversary, which is half a century of having started a work, and I thought it was important that some of the founding members of the band were present, and the easiest ones to gather were Paquito and Arturo Sandoval...

MJ: The easiest?

CV: Yes, like others who could have been there, but because of visa problems and things like that, they didn't have the security to come. So we agreed among the three of us and decided to join. And the rest of the band are musicians of a new generation who have studied the music very well and have learned the songs of Irakere. That was our idea: the three of us to get together with young people who know this music, which is part of the history of the music of the second half of the 20th century. It influenced many generations; it was a starting point for a new vision of what could be done. Precisely in that group of young people are the musicians of my quartet: Armando Gola on bass, Horacio Hernandez on drums, Roberto Jr. Vizcaino on percussion, and I also joined my youngest son, Julian, who is 17 years old, and is already entering this world. And that was the idea, we did it here in Miami, at the Art Center and I think it was wonderful, or rather historic, more than wonderful.

MJ: Of course, a historic moment because I understand that Arturo and Paquito had not spoken or played together for many years and... had no intention of doing so...

CV: No, but it's because everyone had their own project. It is very difficult to do things together when each one already has his own things and travels around the world; joining together is not easy at all. Well, Paquito, Arturo and I hadn't played together for 40 years.

MJ: A life! And how does your reunion happen, first with Paquito to record I miss you too?Who comes up with it and why?

CV: I was listening to a work of mine called SquirrelI spoke to him and said: "Hey, what you have done with the piece is a marvel, I still miss you". I mean, I still miss him from the times when we were working together, you know what I mean? Then he answered me: "Oh, I miss you too"And well, if we miss each other, let's get together, let's make an album together... And we decided to call the album that. Then we were lucky enough to win the Latin Gammy award with that album, which is wonderful.

Image taken from the artist's Facebook profile.

MJ: And you return to themes that were important to you, even before Irakere, such as Mambo influenciadoFor example... a theme that you have said several times that you think is relevant to what was later called Latin jazz. Do you think it still influences in any way what musicians do today?

CV: Mambo influenciado has become an anthem of Latin jazz or Afro-Cuban jazz, whatever you want to call it; it is a must. All the musicians know it, they have recorded it a lot, and it has become a standard. It is also very important because at the time when I wrote it, in 1963, the song became popular even in art schools. In other words, the same students who were studying instruments other than the piano were playing it. So it is still a standard. A theme that broke an old path and opened a new one.

MJ: I would like us to review certain things you said a few years ago about Irakere. I'm interested in knowing what is your current vision about those same things and people. For example, you said that Arturo was gifted, but Paquito was a genius... I'm also interested in this because I would like to know what genius is for you...

CV: (He smiles, looks to the side, looks back at me.). Look, I can tell you today that they are two geniuses. Unquestionably, two geniuses.

MJ: Really?

CV: Of course. At that time I had no information about what Arturo was doing. Mind you, we are talking about 2008. I remembered Arturo from his beginnings with Irakere. I said he was a gifted musician, but Arturo's development, you see, so vertiginous, shows me something else. They are two geniuses.

MJ: And what defines a genius in music, Chucho?

CV: Such a simple thing as creativity. Creativity, when it is spontaneous and true, when it carries the personality of an artist that breaks with all the standards and clichés, in my opinion, is great. I think there is a border between the great musician and the artist. Only a few musicians cross it. Between the artist and the genius there is another one. It's all in the creativity, in the imagination. Because that's what this kind of music is really about, to wonder how far your imagination can go. See how far you can elevate and elevate yourself. And the most important thing: without repeating yourself. It's a bit abstract, as you'll see. But for me it works like that.

MJ: It's so rare to meet that kind of beings, isn't it? Recently, for example, I saw you with someone who perhaps fits this last profile, Cimafunk. What do you think of his work?

CV: Oh, Cimafunk is indeed a super creative artist, I would say innovative as well. He has gone beyond all parameters, and in his artistic development..., uff, I consider him an outlier, within the exceptional, an exception. Tremendous talent. Something that cannot be measured: something great.

Photo taken from the artist's Facebook profile.

MJ: Thinking about the exceptional, let's talk a little about these rhythms that were part of Irakere's exceptionality; about the batumbatá, for example, about the inclusion of the batá in that format of orchestra and popular music, of which you said you were a pioneer. I am very intrigued by the reception given to this inclusion, not only by the cultural institutions of the Cuban state, but also by the religious practitioners, the purists...

CV: In dance music, as far as I know, the batá drums had not been used; or if they had been used, I had not heard about it. That is to say, the non-danceable rhythms have always been very good, but the idea of introducing the batá was a way of Africanizing them, of a-fro-cuba-ni-zar-las. And also, singing in Yoruba within dance music was a new thing that we didn't know if it was going to work. We knew that musically it worked, but it had to be adapted to popular dance. For example, think of Bacalao con pan. This structure has nothing to do with anything that has been done before, because Bacalao con pan is an instrumental in which we use pentatonic scales*, which was something that was not done in this music because it sounds very strange to the normal ear. It even sounds oriental (laughs), but oriental with batá. Including this was a challenge. The instrumentation of Codfish... is beautiful. Harmonically and melodically. And with the incorporation of the batá and the rhythm built by Jorge Alfonso The boy and Óscar Valdés, this so-called batumbatá, resulted in an explosive mixture. How is it, that half a century later I am still being asked for Bacalao con pan everywhere and people feel it as something fresh, as if it was composed right now.

MJ: It became one of those songs that you can't stop playing... It's curious, clarify this: I understand that the first version was not recorded for Irakare and that it was done in Santiago de Cuba, with another producer different from Irakere's, Rodulfo Vaillant?

CV: It wasn't exactly like that. That Bacalao con pan was recorded at Egrem, in San Miguel and Campanario, but it was premiered in Santiago de Cuba. In a radio station that, if I am not mistaken, was called or is called CMKC, and Vaillant was the number one promoter of Irakere. We owe the popularity of that song to Vaillant. In fact, I would even say that we owe the popularity of Irakere to Vaillant, because after that song became popular in the carnivals of Santiago, it was in Havana that they began to pay attention to it. So that song comes from the rejection in Havana, which was where we recorded it. But it became popular in Santiago because the easterners are wonderful, wonderful, and they have a more special relationship with music. In Santiago people asked for it and asked for it. And that's how it became popular in Havana. Thanks to Rodulfo Vaillant, genius, genius.

MJ: It is sometimes difficult to get to the "real" bottom of these stories because so much different information intersects, but also because especially with Irakere's first records there is a lot of confusion about their printing and distribution. Egrem did something curious: they released several albums of the same music, with different covers and different information, and that's how Irakere's first album has several presentations, different numbers and credits on each one, and volume four comes out before two and three...

CV: Look, the most horrible, horrible, ho-rri-ble work that has been done with the discography of Irakere or Chucho Valdés has been done by Egrem. Even Egrem is now putting out records that I recorded in 1964 with covers and photos of that time; that is, imagine this: selling a pig in a poke; because if you see the current photo and it turns out that the music is from so long ago... For me, Egrem has been a very negative factor in terms of the distribution and the process of my work. It's been hache, o, ere, ere, i, be, ele, e: HORRIBLE. But I've been lucky to be able to move in the world, because if it had been for the Egrem... forget it.

MJ: And how did you manage to convince them to record or distribute things that they did not find convenient, for example, that tribute to Arsenio Rodríguez, which I believe they criticized you as something not acceptable...?

CV: No, but it was not the problem with all of Arsenio's music or Arsenio himself, but with a particular song that is a classic of Cuban music, called Life is a Dream. A very intelligent, great announcer, a tremendous guy, "who had a very deep knowledge of our roots", did something wrong....

MJ: Who?

CV: I don't remember now... but he used to say that this song had negative connotations, because of that. "You have to live the happy moment and that life is a dream and everything goes away...". And nothing to do with that, what happens is that that song refers to when Arsenio had an eye operation and could not see, and he had that depression. And that famous announcer said that it was a composition of mine, he didn't even know it was by Arsenio Rodríguez, and then he wondered how Chucho was going to compose such a negative song; but hey..., please....

MJ: But isn't your version instrumental?

CV: I played it as an instrumental, yes, but if I had sung it, it would have been the same. That song will always be a classic. But you see, that's what happens with ignorance or misguided, misinterpreted information, because he who doesn't know, always thinks wrong. In reality it was a beautiful instrumental that everybody liked...

MJ: And on this disc is Cerro Causewayright? I'm curious about the connection, the resemblance, let's say, melodic and harmonic, that it has with another song that I also love, by Ray Barretto, called Something New. I wonder how you were hearing each other at that time. We know something about how Cuban music circulated in New York under the restrictions of the time, but we don't know - or at least I know little - about how salsa circulated in Cuba and how they heard it, so as to end up doing similar things?

CV: Well, it wasn't difficult, those things happened. Sometimes the salseros would hear songs that they liked and they would put them together, with new arrangements, in other ways. And we also heard many of their songs at that time and we put them together. I don't see that as bad. That's fine. Besides, there was always a lot of respect and a lot of good communication and exchange between the salseros and us as brothers. Not only with those from New York, but with Puerto Ricans and musicians from other parts of the world.

MJ: And another thing that intrigues me about that record is the use of the vocoder, how did you get that instrument then, was it Soviet?

CV: No, no. That instrument belonged to Egrem. They had bought things for the studio, especially a lot of instruments. And so I added the vocoder to the song, and I sang; "I don't know what to do when you're not there., I don't know what to do" on the vocoder to make the voice sound electronic and give that little sparkling color to the song.

Image taken from the artist's Facebook profile.

MJ: What we know -and you yourself call- as the antecedents of timba... Although you can look much further back, can't you? Since the 70's and in themes such as That boldness. How do they decide to do it?

CV: Well, that song is not mine. It was composed by a good Cuban composer named Ricardo Díaz. Stop being so bold, mulatto, let yourself...There is a thing in rumba called "vacunar". Perhaps it is like a macho phrase. Because the man in the rumba could "vaccinate" the woman. That is to say, "vacunar" was like doing a little step*... (smile, move his torso from one side to the other, smiles again) so, well, you know what I mean... So in that song the woman "vaccinates" the man, and then the guy, as a good macho man, tells her: well, either you are going to respect or you are not going to respect, referring to the "vaccination". When we decided to record it, I first thought of not putting that part of "if you are going to vaccinate or not", because I felt that it would be interpreted as an ugly thing, but we ended up leaving it out and that's how they started to criticize the song. It was number one in popularity and the truth is that I don't think the composer had bad intentions. It's more of a rumba language, you see, but they gave us a very bad publicity with that song that, as you can see, people still like it?

MJ: It must also have had to do with the contexts and with the fact that, in effect, it is quite sexist....

CV: Well, it depends on the importance you want to give it. As I say, it is a matter of the rumba. In rumba, women don't "vaccinate" and if you "vaccinate" me, well, respect me. Nothing serious, just a song.

MJ: Going back to the inclusion of the batás, you have said that the chants, prayers, and music of Afro-Cuban cults have still been very little explored in popular music. Why do you think this is, considering the richness of this music?

CV: It has been explored, yes, but the richness of Afro-Cuban music, its history, its influences, everything that comes from Nigeria, from the Congo, has many things that still need to be investigated. In Irakere, for example, we built instruments that were no longer being used to be able to interpret this music. Because the batá drums were there, but the yuca drums and the arará drums, we had to make them ourselves with the help of some friends of African descent more direct than us, who told us how to build them. Oscar made them. And those were used in The Black Mass, in Joan 1600. But now I have composed a theme, which is a suite roomrather, in four movements. It is called The Creation. A tribute to Olodumare, the great Yoruba god. It is the most complete work of my career in this sense. I have always lived trying to develop this musicality. Olodumare has everything: it has the story of creation, which is what the work is called (the creation of the world from the point of view of the Yoruba Africans), with the language, the chants, the toques, I think it is a very complete work.

MJ: Do you think that maybe this type of chants and toques are not suitable for many musicians also because many cannot do what you do, which is to bring this syncretism to music, balancing things that come from Catholicism with the chants of the rule of ocha? For example, from your saint, who is Obatalá, who you say has a very particular dance, very different from the other Orishas?

CV: Well, they are all different...

MJ: How do you transfer that dance to the piano percussion, or is this one of your intentions? I ask because it was something that was transmitted to me The Creation and that your compositions often transmit to me.

CV: That's true. I'm interested in mixing all those languages in harmonies, but hopefully achieving one that generates a total immersion.

MJ: And your relationship with the language as such, what is it? Recently I heard Daymé Arocena say that it must be very difficult for the poor orishas when they try to understand the many things that sometimes their children say to them in "Yoruba" without understanding...

CV: I speak what is necessary, right, to be able to communicate with the deities that have their own language, which is always the same, but one has to learn it little by little... And that is what can go into a theme: just a fragment of the language, like in Joan 1600 or in The Black Massor in The Creation, that there is a lot of language and even chants of real ritual prayers, of petitions to the deities. I also mixed those chants with the blueswhich] is a music with Afro-American roots. Because both Afro-Cubans and Afro-Americans have the same roots. So you can hear there a blues Afro-American, pure, but in a song sung with Afro-Cuban chants, and that, in The Creation, is one of the most wonderful parts.

Photo taken from the artist's Facebook profile.

MJ: I'm curious about the way you intertwine things, and how your way of composing has transformed. Do you still do handwritten scores, the kind that El Tosco used to call "mosqueros"?, How is your process? Rhythms first, melodies first?

CV: Well, first by hand, but I haven't had and don't have specific rules. The music is as it comes. Sometimes the whole melody comes. Sometimes the rhythm comes first. Sometimes the rhythm comes and then the melody and sometimes the whole thing comes. What I've never done is to tell myself: well now you're going to sit down and compose, because that doesn't work for me. I have to have a very high level of inspiration?

"The elf has to come to me. And then I stop being the same. I don't know what dimension I put myself in and it's all very emotional. What I can't do is mechanically decide to make it happen, without inspiration. The same thing happens to me when I improvise on the piano. When I'm improvising I put my mind at zero, totally, and let whatever comes flow. So sometimes things come that surprise me because I hadn't imagined them. I'm not a musician of great clichés and sometimes I get into adventures in improvisation that scare me and I say to myself: let's see where this comes out, and then I say to myself: what a pity that this was not recorded, because I came up with things that had never occurred to me. It's a whole world".

At this point, his wife Lorena intervenes, who has been close by all the time, pending: "Excuse me, Marcela, but we have to finish because we have a commitment now". Chucho repeats: "we have a commitment now".

MJ: Let's close by talking about your mother. I know she was a piano teacher and that she sang, but who was she for you?

CV: My mother, Pilar, was not really a piano teacher. She played the piano, but her forte was singing. She was a very good singer. She accompanied herself on the piano, she had a tremendous musical ear and she was always like the guardian angel looking out for me, whether I practiced or not, and always on top of me, besides my dad, of course. But when he wasn't there, she was. I learned to accompany singers by accompanying my mom when I was a child. She liked the way I accompanied her better than if she played it herself, and that's how we did it at all the parties at my house. Besides, my mother was the singing teacher of my sister Mayra Caridad Valdés who, in my opinion, and it is not because she was my sister, there has never been another singer in her genre like her.

When I was no longer living with my mother, she still called me every day to ask: "Hey, have you practiced the piano? I was already in my early twenties, living in El Vedado and she would ask the same question, and I would answer: Mommy, I already know what I have to do, I am a professional musician, and she would insist: well, but answer, did you practice or not? My mother was a pillar. I mean, Pilar was a very important pillar in my life.

MJ: Would you have liked to do things differently, Chucho? Would you have chosen other paths, made other decisions about staying or leaving Cuba?

CV: Never. I would do the same thing again a hundred times or a million times more. Because it was an idea I had as a student. Look, I was studying to be a teacher, and when I was a teacher I had very little time to practice my piano. I was doing two careers and in my dreams I imagined sonorities, like the ones I was able to achieve later... Because Chucho Valdés' group existed long before Irakere. Ten years earlier I already had a group with Paquito D'Rivera, Carlos Emilio Morales and other musicians who belonged to the Teatro Musical de La Habana. It was in that '63 group that Mambo influenciado. After I finished teaching and dedicated myself to this alone, those dreams came true. I told myself that I was going straight ahead and I always had the support of my parents, Bebo and Pilar, which was very important. And if I were to be born again a hundred times, a hundred times I would start with the same thing. Of course, what I would like is to have been able to start with the same thing with the experience I have today?

MJ: (Laughs). How funny, no, because we all want that...

CV: (RisasCan you imagine? Oh, it would have been quite different, of course, but I have no regrets. Ah, I give you this last piece of information. I'm composing now my concerto for piano, symphony orchestra and quartet...

MJ: Does this have to do with what you were saying about wanting to do an opera?

CV: Yes. Well, The Creation, which is not an opera, it already has operatic things in it. African operatic, of course.

MJ: And in what you are doing now, are you also going to include the afro...?

CVNo, no. Now it's piano, on the side, with a symphony orchestra and my quartet. It's a totally different concept from what I've been doing, because I think it's important to develop other paths; you have to step out of the line a little bit, as the old people used to say...

MJ: Hopefully we will be able to hear it soon. Thank you very, very much for your time, Chucho. And thank you, Lorena, for coordinating everything, and for your time as well.

Photo taken from the artist's Facebook profile.


*Pentatonic scale: it is composed of five tones or notes. It has been common in many musical cultures, especially in the East and Africa. Already in the 20th century, jazz and rock music made use of this scale in a very common way, but in popular dance music it is still uncommon.

*In the guaguancó the man tries to "vaccinate" (simulate an explicit sexual gesture with his hips) the woman, who, in turn, tries to avoid him with agile and elegant movements.

Marcela Jewel Marcela Jewel He knows how to do useful things, like cut other people's hair and get others drunk, but he prefers to listen to music, write and take pictures. In that order. More posts

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