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Artist : ISRAEL LOPEZ "CACHAO"
Album's title : "DOS"
Year : 1976
Recorded at : Plaza Sound Studios, New York.
Tracks : 1. Ko-wo, Ko-wo. 2. Jovenes del Ritmo. 3. Centro San Agustin. 4. Trombon Melancolico. 5. Chambelona.
By far, the most expensive album I have ever bought is Cachao’s ‘Dos’. I ran across it in 1992 in a mail order second - hand album company in London, named “Mr. Bongo”, a records supplier which has notoriously been a bloodsucker pricewise and a cunning master in ‘mistakes’. (Oh! So, we sent you 5 more records than those you requested? We do apologize, you can always return them!). In its sloppy catalogue, half- printed, half- handwritten, often featured masterpieces of the Latin music classics, in their original editions with the legendary covers and that distinct smell that time emanates, when combined with carton paper and vinyl. In short, “Dos” cost me no less than 60 sterling pounds- roughly, a hundred dollars. But not until I placed it on the record player did I realize that its five tracks were quite deservedly priced . “Dos” is indubitably one of the most exciting albums in the history of Latin music.
It is interesting to note -and quite typical of the 70’s in terms of tropical latin music- that when his album was recorded, Cachao, a pre-eminent Cuban musician and composer of the twentieth century, lived in the U.S.A, being completely forgotten. Out of necessity, he played the bass in various bands of Las Vegas casinos or even played the piano in the numerous Cuban restaurants of the country. Yet, none of the table companions knew, while eating moros y cristianos, that the very musician who garnished their food with melodies, had drastically and repeatedly changed the course of latin music : Cachao and his brother, Orestes Lopez, were the most important danzon composers of the days when Antonio Arcano’s band (Arcano y sus Maravillas) established its dominion as Cuba’s most popular charanga. Between the years 1935 – 1950 so many as 25 danzones per week were composed by the Lopez brothers for the band in question; that this was a magnificent achievement, it would be impossible to deny, considering the compositional complexity of the danzon genre. From the inspiration of the siblings and the Arcano band, emerged, in 1939, the first mambo sample. In the 50’s, however, Cachao became autonomous, and for a while left the rigidly structured danzon (and the mambo in the care of Perez Prado and Tito Puente) to go to the extreme end: He was the first to conceive of the idea and direct the innovative scheme of putting together Cuban virtuoso musicians in order to allow room for absolute improvisation. In reality, by thus crystallizing the concept of descarga (Cuban jam session), Cachao actually proposed a latin alternative for jazz music, the so far unique harmonic tool serving this purpose. From that point onwards, the Latin world changed dramatically and descarga became a familiar device in the music of the Spanish- speaking Caribbean. Yet, with the completion of a circle of classic descarga recordings and a series of exemplary danzon albums, Cachao left Fidel Castro’s Cuba and went to the U.S., were he joined the band of Tito Rodriguez and later that of Eddie Palmieri, to gradually slip into almost absolute oblivion.
It was the beginning of the era of salsa as the old Cuban masters watched the new generation of New York Puerto Ricans start their very own revolution in music- and politics, for that matter. Musicians of calibre like Arsenio Rodriguez, Jose Fajardo and of course Cachao had to face a new music status quo, which almost overnight pronounced them sacred fossils of an era long- gone, worthy of respect, yet thereafter regarded as museum relics. Throughout the 70’s, salsa and its industry invaded the latin music world and prevailed over the market, allowing little space for side experimentation. From the mid 70’s onwards, however, the abundance of products (catering for the needs) of one and the same category triggered off the first reaction: Salsoul company, whose most recordings concerned soul and disco music, tried a new project which can be viewed today as an experimentation with traditional, even folkloric Afro-Cuban music, as a starting point. From that small recording concept, yielding little profit, yet producing a handful of Latin music classics, we may single out the two albums of the legendary Grupo Folclorico y Experimental Nuevayorquino (to be discussed in forthcoming notes) and Cachao’s “Uno” and “Dos”. Cachao, in particular, was quite rightly deemed extremely suitable for the task of confronting and changing tradition, mainly because he had already done so in the past.
While “Uno” was more rumba- oriented, “Dos” moved onto a clearly wider stylistic range and, considering the music vogue of those days, the second album must have taken its audience by surprise. Listening to this album today, it becomes evident that not only did Cachao carefully select -and compose- these songs and their particular sub-styles, but he also recruited a group of highly skilled musicians, to each of whom he (mentally) assigned a specific mission they had had to accomplish within this specific music framework. In itself, this is an exceptionally important fact, on the one hand because Cachao’s music was always particularly personal, and was therefore inextricably linked with the selection of the suitable musician who would faithfully render the composer’s music personality; on the other hand, because Cachao regarded sound not only as a technical ingredient but, also, as a true vehicle of expression. The emphasis on the audience-sound impact becomes evident in the first track of the album, which even today sounds haunting and peculiar: “Ko – Wo Ko –Wo” is a legitimate song of santeria, pertaining as it were to the repertoire of Chango, the god of thunder, fire and drums. It begins as a typical guiro with chekere, cowbell and conga in a slow African tempo of 6/8 meter; almost immediately there follows Cachao’s thunderous bass in an utterly paradoxical combination of pure African tradition and a classic instrument of central Europe. Notwithstanding, Cachao’s use of this instrument, as well as his magnificent solo part later in the song, in just six minutes and twenty seconds outline the most mystic processes in the development of Cuban music and culture: To be precise, Cachao proves that a distinctly European instrument can undertake the task and, most importantly, can communicate in the language of the African drum, not through a mere translation (as is the case of early jazz music) but through the same ancient tongue. This is a matter of significant development and continuation, given that Cachao had a solid educational background and experience in symphonic orchestras, but is capable however (like most Cubans) of assimilating influences which even today, almost one and a half century after the abolition of slavery, can still link to a great extent the Cuban cultural identity with the ghosts of the old realms of Western and Central Africa. In this projection of the past into the present Julito Collazo plays a significant role, being undoubtedly the most mystic out of the few masters of afro- Cuban religious music, who found themselves in the U.S. from the war until 1980 and the influx of Cuban fugitives of Mariel. Collazo was a member of the old regiment of santeria musicians, recruited in an environment where sons of extant African slaves lived (until the mid 60’s, former slaves still lived in Cuba, while until the 1930’s Cubans born in Africa were still around). Hence, the music structure of his environment included on the one hand a volume of authentic knowledge; on the other hand, a unique unwillingness to share this knowledge with the ‘outsiders’, as was the habit in Cuba of those days. A nearly mythical figure in the nexus of New York musicians, Collazo took part in a small number of recordings during his New York years and in Cachao’s “Dos” he performs the ancestral song of Chango (“Ko wo, ko wo, arabayo eriki ko wo leri...”), in an impeccable and authoritative way, sung – like all santeria songs- in what is left in Cuba of the original language of theYoruba nation, still living in Nigeria and Benin today.
The first and quite successful attempt by Cachao to record authentic religious Afro- Cuban music, particularly in the music genre of guiro- which had been rarely heard at the time in the U.S.A- was followed by a song pertaining to the other music end of Cuba and of Cachao’s persona: the danzon “Jovenes Del Ritmo”. It was an old composition of Cachao dating from the time when he and his brother Orestes mapped out anew that wonderful music kind, which comprises the first wholly indigenous idiom in Cuban music history and whose strictly defined structure includes solid elements of the 19th century European music as well as echoes of the first African rhythmic influences. Cachao had always been a leading danzon craftsman, a genre which had been a practically marginalized in New York for decades. The re- interpretation of this classic specimen of his craftsmanship in a classy performance of seven minutes and twenty seconds calms down the storm after “Ko – wo Ko – Wo”’s intense polyrhythmic structures and carries the audience away in a dreamy multitude of strings (five violins, a cello, and a double bass- in part one- played by Cachao with a bow) and projects pictures and sounds in the U.S of 1976 taken not from another age, but from a different music know-how : Amongst the few musicians adequately skilled to interpret danzon in American soil, Cachao chose the flutist Gonzalo Fernandez, an essential cornerstone of the ‘old school’(and unfortunate, too, as a few years after this recording he stopped playing due to a rare lip disease). Fernandez was among the last virtuosos of traditional Cuban wooden flute and therefore historically linked to the ulterior (afro) Cuban danzon. Equally predominant is the role of Charlie Palmieri, the New York- born Puerto Rican pianist (and Eddie Palmieri’s brother) whose beautifully prolonged solo restores the bridge between the stationary past (Cuba at the beginning of the century) and the ever-changing present (New York of the 70’s). A virtuoso pianist with solid knowledge of the old Cuban music-hence authorised to prestigiously play danzon-, he was, however, a typical New Yorker who introduced danzon in a jazz approach, nonetheless still portraying an aspect of Cachao’s mastery, in which Palmieri was a useful tool, too.