Song Of The Day 4/8/2016: Cachao – “Guajira Clásica”

Cuba: We Cool? – Israel "Cachao" López (1918-2008) was born into a family that had a bunch of members who played double bass, so he took it up too. He became the bassist for the Havana Philharmonic (Orquesta Filarmónica de La Habana) at age 13 and remained with them until the ripe old age of 42. He played one night when Igor Stravinsky was guest conductor. On the side he played in smaller combos with his brother Orestes, a pianist and cellist. They worked on a lot of traditional, courtly danzón music. Feeling along the limitations of the form, the brothers came up with a sort of coda to end their performances. “My brother and I would say to each other, ‘Mambea, mambea ahí,’ which meant to add swing to that part,” he told the Miami Herald. It was a little too fast, disorienting and shocking for the common populace at the time, so Israel's and Orestes' radical new invention -- labeled the mambo -- had to wait a bit to find favor. When it did, thanks to its popularization by people like Pérez Prado, it took everything over. Cachao's influence spread throughout popular Cuban music in the '50s as the salsa found a foothold in the Americas.

Cachao fled Cuba in 1962, eventually winding up in New York where he was duly received as a godhead in the salsa scene. He played a surprisingly subservient role, backing up bandleaders like Tito Rodríguez and Eddie Palmieri, who all performed pieces in the very same mambo style Cachao had come up with in the first place. He moved to Vegas but developed something of a gambling problem, so his wife insisted they move to Miami. For a couple of decades Cachao was either content or resigned to play airport lounges, weddings and birthday parties, until superfan and actor Andy Garcia produced a film and some albums for him, bringing him back into prominence in his final years. (That's my game plan as well, if you were wondering.)

I liked Cachao's approach to playing the double bass. He always held the bow like all classical players would, but he alternately stroked and strummed the strings, either by plucking with a stray finger or banging the bow across. It might have been simultaneous. In addition to the mambo Cachao pioneered late-night jam sessions called descargas: lightly disciplined amalgamations that combined traditional Cuban song, Afro-Cuban percussion and modern jazz styles. They produced extended pieces like the one featured today. 

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