Known to the world by his nickname, Cachao, bassist, composer and bandleader Israel Lopez died Saturday morning at Coral Gables Hospital of complications resulting from kidney failure. He was 89.
Cachao was, in his last years, the most important living figure in Cuban music, on or off the island. And according to Cuban-music historian Ned Sublette he was “arguably the most important bassist in twentieth-century popular music,” innovating not only Cuban music but also influencing the now familiar bass lines of American R&B, “which have become such a part of the environment that we don’t even think where they came from.”
Cachao and his brother Orestes are most widely known for their late-1930s invention of the mambo, a hot coda to the popular but stately danzon that allowed the dancers to break loose at the end of a piece. Typically modest, Cachao always admitted that it was bandleader Damaso Perez Prado who made the beat world famous in the ‘50s.
A possibly more important move took place in 1957, when Cachao gathered a group of musicians in the early hours of the morning, pumped from playing gigs at Havana’s popular nightclubs, to jam in front of the mikes of a recording studio. The resulting descargas, known to music aficionados worldwide as Cuban jam sessions, revolutionized Afro-Cuban popular music. Under Cachao’s direction, these masters improvised freely in the manner of jazz, but their vocabulary was Cuba’s popular music. This was the model that woyld make live performances of Afro-Cuban based genres, from salsa to Latin jazz, so incredibly hot.
This majestic influence came from a man of sweet demeanor and unassailable sense of humor. Fronting his band at a fancy dance in Coral Gables when he was already in his late 80s, he seemed so frail he had to lean his whole body on the contrabass to keep from falling. But a look at his beatific smile proved that he was in heaven already, embracing his instrument like a lover, like a strong friend.
Still, he no longer owned a bass.
“That’s outrageous,” said jazz legend Charlie Haden when he heard this. “I’ll give him one of mine.”
But a contrabass took up too much room in his small Coral Gables apartment. Besides, what need did he have to rehearse? Cachao carried his bass, his music, inside him.
A marvel of the 20th century, Cachao was born into a family of musicians, many of them bassists - around 40 and counting in his extended family.
As an 8-year-old bongo player, he joined a children’s septet that included a future famous singer and bandleader, Roberto Faz. A year later, already on bass, he provided music for silent movies in his neighborhood theater, in the company of a pianist who would become a true superstar, the great cabaret performer Ignacio Villa, known as Bola de Nieve.
His parents made sure he was classically trained, first at home and then at a conservatory. In his early teens he was already playing contrabass with the Orquesta Filarmonica de La Habana, under the baton of guest conductors like Herbert von Karajan, Igor Stravinsky and Heitor Villa-Lobos.
After a rich musical career in his home country, he joined his fellow exiles in 1962, eventually landing in Las Vegas because, as he admitted, “I was a compulsive gambler.”
Though cured later in life, he nearly gambled away every penny until his wife whisked him away from the town.
For a while, he had two distinct musical personae. In the New York salsa scene he was revered as a music god, with homage concerts dedicated to him, and records of his music produced by Cuban-music collector Rene Lopez. In Miami, he was an ordinary working musician who would play quinceaneras and weddings, or back dance bands in the notorious Latin nightclubs of the Miami Vice era.
It took a celebrity, Miami’s own Andy Garcia, to integrate his musical personality into one: that of a legendary master. In the ‘90s, Garcia produced the recordings known as Master Sessions and big concerts honoring his legacy. Since then, Cachao became again a household word among Cubans and his reputation continued to grow.
But he remained a working musician, though now at a much higher level of appreciation. Cachao continued to perform and record with all the energy of a much younger artist. Though visibly moved at the funeral of his fellow legend, trombonist Generoso Jimenez, in September 2007, he headlined a rollicking concert in Miami a week later.
On March 9 of this year, days before being hospitalized, the multiple Grammy winner was in the Dominican Republic receiving a lifetime achievement award. Cachao was planning an European tour in August with violinist Federico Britos, with whom he frequently collaborated.
The day before his death, Cachao told his friend Britos, “When am I supposed to record with you again? I have to get out of bed.” And he was in pre-production for a CD of new compositions.
“It was not only a great musician who died,” said producer Emilio Estefan, “but a great senor - a gentleman. Even in his deathbed he would make sure his visitors felt at ease. He belonged to the people.”
Cachao, whose wife of 58 years, Ester Buenaventura Lopez, died in 2004, is survived by their daughter Maria Elena Lopez and grandson Hector Luis Vega, as well as nephew Daniel Palacio, who cared for the musician.