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7/16/00

Interview with the much respected New York-based pianist, arranger, composer and musical director Alfredo Valdés Jr.


Alfredo Valdés Jr.The Son of Buena Vista

by John Child and David Barton

In another transatlantic collaboration, John Child in London and David Barton in New York interview pianist, arranger, composer and musical director Alfredo Valdés Jr., who speaks with passion and candour. A Cuban-American resident in the US for the last 44 years, Alfredito can claim a direct line of descent from the heyday of Havana's now internationally famous Buena Vista Social Club into the new millennium. For instance, not only did he witness Arsenio Rodríguez's legendary conjunto perform there when he was a youngster, but also played and recorded with this giant of Cuban music years later. Other titans he has worked with include his father Alfredo Valdés, Ray Barretto, Machito, Mario Bauzá, Chocolate and Cachao. He was a key figure in the SAR label's phenomenal success in early '80s, whose biggest star, sonero and percussionist Papaíto, is the subject of his most recent production on release. In addition to performing on Cachao's Grammy winning Master Sessions Volume 1 and Grammy nominated Master Sessions Volume II , Alfredito plays on the maestro's acclaimed current CD Cuba Linda . He has directed arch Latin jam sessioneers, the Caimán All Stars, since 1995, whose third outing Descarga Brava 2000! , released at the end of 1999, is still burning up salsa dance floors across the world.


Let's take things in reverse. Let's talk about your most recent projects with Papaíto and Cachao first. What was the motivation for recording Papaíto?

This is a sad and funny story. Papaíto was the most influential artist in the life of SAR Records. Monguito was important, but Papaíto was even more important. At the very beginning of the company's history Monguito's first production Yo No Soy Mentiroso ('79) sold so so. But Papaíto's early recordings (Roberto Torres Presenta A Su Amigo: Papaíto '79, Papaíto '80 and Papaíto Rinde Homenaje A Abelardo Barroso '80) sold in the thousands. In Africa, Papaíto was an idol. But Roberto Torres just wrapped up the company and took it away and never came back. Papaíto had it tough in many ways and he always kept saying how ungrateful Roberto was. He did not want to record, and I kept saying: "Papaíto, these guys want you to record. Let's do something." He did a couple of tracks with Isidro Infante (on Valdésa Records Presenta Vol. 1: Salsa Sudada '90), but it was not his style: the Cuban criollo style. But he didn't want to record for anybody. Not until now. I kept pushing and pushing and finally I convinced him to do something with Sergio Bofil and Humberto Corredor. The reason why he did it is because he sensed that his health was failing and he didn't want to die without recording one more time. He's in pretty bad shape. It's good for all of us that he decided to do it one more time. I believe the public will embrace the work we did with open arms. I'm sure of it.

Papaíto is a very soulful singer. You get the most out of him when you set him in a Cuban mode because Papaíto uses the all Cuban feel. When you give him a son montuno in his style, he'll cook that. I don't think the stuff he did with Isidro was really him. The arrangements were fine; the musicians, the quality, the recording, the sound; everything was A one, A plus. But the artist was not there. It wasn't Papaíto's work, it was Isidro Infante's band. Papaíto was in the background. He was not there. With the Caimán project it's all Papaíto because I stood behind him. I didn't allow my ideas to drown him.

By the way, Caimán New York doesn't exist anymore. The owner Humberto Corredor sold it to Caïmán Records Limited of the Cayman Islands in a law suit. The idea of it is to avoid confusion about the real Caimán. Since that Caïmán is richer and bigger, they took the name and prestige. I've heard that the label name will be changed for all the previous recordings. The Caimán All Stars will not persist - I think it will just die.

Papaíto's on dialysis. After we did the recording in December 1999, he was not feeling very well. Right around that time he was offered a gig. This is also something which is kinda funny and at the same time it's a little sad. His economic position hasn't been too healthy. He and Monguito were offered a few thousand dollars to do a few dates in Africa around the Christmas season. At first he said he wasn't going to do it. And then he decided that he should try and help his family out. He went there with one condition: he asked for a ticket to be given to his 30 year old son Manuel. When he got to Africa he started taking something to alleviate a cough and sore throat. Not only has he had renal failure, but he's also a diabetic. So everything complicated and worsened for him and he was brought back. When he arrived back he had an 80% chance of dying. We all kept our fingers crossed, not only because we nearly lost him but also because the recording needed a lot of fixing. He got better and was able to go back into the studio and finish it. He says he feels better that he has done in years. I think it's one of the best things Papaíto has done and we expect it to be a hit.

[Editor's note: We are sad to report, Papaíto died of complications of kidney disease on Sunday, June 4, 2000.]


Is the album intentionally nostalgic and traditional in feel?

Papaíto's style is all nostalgic. Papaíto is critical of the establishment, values, relationships, women. Critical of the relationship between man and woman; infidelity: men who live with it and men who accept this moral setting. Papaíto is very hard on these segments of folks. He's an old time moralist: the values of yesteryear.


Is Papaíto responsible for the lyrical content?

He writes a lot of the stuff he sings and writes all the stuff he improvises. I really love to work with him. He's a fun cat. And his music is so fresh, it's so new. Papaíto is the complete opposite of salsa erótica. In salsa erótica they talk about: "Lady I don't care what you do as long as you don't leave me. You're a prostitute, you enjoy what you do, but I love you regardless." This type of chicken shit. This is what the modernists are talking about. Papaíto is 180 degrees opposite to that. It's all macho, if you want to call it that. I know macho is detested now by almost everyone. But to me it's so sincere, because that's what it really all boils down to. It's a man's world and that's it. Papaíto has always been macho and patriarchal in his music. He stands on a patriarchal pedestal: he's a man, he's a good father. I know his family, his wife, his children. He's a good man. He's never been involved in any scandals or anything of that sort. Papaíto's a firm guy. Just a little older and sick, but he's a good man all round.


Did Papaíto have anything to do with the running of La Sonora Matancera, or was he simply one of the singers?

He was with La Sonora Matancera for many years. Everybody had something to do with the running of the band because this band stuck together. It was supposedly a cooperative, but there were some who were privileged. In other words, the leader Rogelio Martínez got a little more, Lino Frías got a little more, the bass player Elpidio Vázquez got a little more, and Calixto Leicea, the trumpeter player, got a little more, because Calixto was one of the founders. It was a cooperative for a few and then there was a sub-class for some of the newer members. And this is what Papaíto always fought Rogelio about. He left Mexico in the late '50s or early '60s to follow La Sonora around. He had lived in Mexico for many years. His wife is Mexican and his daughters were born over there. He never got the kind of money other members were getting.


Papaíto never seemed to get the acclaim of other La Sonora members.

I remember when La Sonora came from Cuba, I believe it was in 1961. There was Celio González, Willie El Baby, they were the vocalists; Pedro Knight was on trumpet, that's Celia Cruz's husband; Calixto Leicea, the first trumpet; Elpidio Vázquez on bass; and Papaíto on bongo. It was a nice group. Papaíto always felt resentful about not getting what he should have got. In the '60s Johnny Pacheco started putting corks over everything. Pacheco turned out to do the stuff the old timers didn't want to do. He started doing kinda pirate work. By that I mean, for example, Fajardo had a big name in Cuba. When he arrived in New York he wanted top money for his band. Since they wouldn't give it to him, then Pacheco would come and fill the gap. When charanga started to take a dive then he got a conjunto together and started doing the jobs La Sonora didn't want to do. Also the ethnic makeup of New York started changing: there were a lot more Dominicans coming, he was Dominican. So he started filling two gaps: stuff for the Dominican sector and jobs the old timers didn't want. Consequently La Sonora actually retired for 11 years in the '60s and part of the '70s. With their big name and over two or three hundred recordings, they did not work. Why? Because Rogelio was not getting the type of money he demanded. Meanwhile Papaíto had a growing family with three kids. He was not an arranger and he was not a pianist, he was just a bongosero or timbalero. Papaíto had a tough time - they all did - but especially Papaíto. In the '70s there were some contracts to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the group. That helped Rogelio buy a building in Queens. He made money. Again Papaíto was never compensated as he deserved. It was an unhappy existence for Papaíto. But it was a tight family; they all stuck together. And now everybody is happy. It's too bad it came a little bit too late.


It's surprising how few recordings Papaíto achieved throughout the '80s. It now amounts to a handful.

That's true. They're talking about recording him again. The one's he did for SAR Records are certainly the hits; they are classics now. Thousands, if not millions sold.


Tell us about the Cachao Cuba Linda project (on EMI Latin/ CineSon)?

The Cachao recording was done in October 1999 at the Capitol Studios in California for the Estefans. Cachao is a good all round musician, and can go into any style and do anything: jazz, Latin jazz, and typical Cuban. He can do anything with his arranging and his performance. But when you leave him free to be the leader and do whatever he wants, he's going to go typical but with a little accent on the vanguard. He's always looking forward. His music always ends on a note of encouragement, of what can come next. His music is a window into the future. But it's not the future. It's typical and formal, and Cuban. It's always open to speculation and possibilities. As far as the soloist is concerned, you can do anything you want with it. His montunos are all typical, he expects that. But when it comes to a solo, you can blow and blow and blow, and he's ready. His tunes are made for solos.


Were the arrangements on this recording Cachao's or yours?

This time he did not bring the charts like he did on previous occasions. I don't know whether it was because of lack of time, or health reasons. I don't know the reason, I didn't ask. I was not the arranger or composer, but I was asked to copy what the Maestro dictated, and some stuff the singer, Lázaro Galarraga, dictated. I only arranged one tune, lightly. One of the ideas of spending a week in LA recording was to film the process. It was planned that Cachao wouldn't have the music ready. In the process, of course, I did the writing. I enjoyed the chance of being filmed with my pencil and music in my hand. I like that recognition. I landed up having the best suite in the hotel in LA, but I wasn't able to enjoy it as much as I would have liked to because we spent every hour at the studio.


Have you worked in this open-ended way before?

Yes, I've done this before, but personally I prefer to go to a studio prepared. But each job has a different set of demands. This one is kinda promotional, it's like a short video documentary. A lot of folks are curious about the process of creation.


Now let's go back to the beginning. Tell us about your upbringing in Cuba?

I grew up in a nest of musicians. My uncles, my father and mother were all musicians. I grew up listening to Arsenio Rodríguez, Cheo Marquetti, Abelardito Valdés, Conjunto Casino. My father, Alfredo Valdés, was one of the most sought after singers in Cuba in the '30s and '40s, and even in the '50s before he came to New York. He made over a hundred records with over 50 different bands. My father would take me to the studios when he recorded in Cuba with Abelardito Valdés. He also recorded with Hermanos Castro. My mother played the guitar with Orquesta Anacaona. These experiences stayed in my ears. I hear these things.


You used to live nearby the now famous Buena Vista Social Club?

Yes I'm from Buena Vista, Havana. My mother and dad would take me to the Buena Vista Social Club. Arsenio's was one of the leading groups which performed there. I'd been listening to Arsenio since I was maybe three or four years old. It was not foreign to me. I grew up listening to black music. I also grew up listening to white music, because my grandmother was a Spaniard. My grandmother reared me. She would buy Spanish bands; peninsular music we called it. I grew up in a musically rich environment. I was always listening to stuff from both sectors of Cuban ethnic composition. Then, on top of that, I was a student of music.


Your father and family played a significant part in promoting black Cuban music?

Ignacio Piñeiro, the bandleader of the group (Septeto Nacional) my father worked in was black. My father played clave and sang. What helped him in those days of segregation in Cuba was the fact he was a light skinned black. Had he been black, black, black, he would have never got the position. He looked a little bit like Cab Calloway. There was that same parallel there. He looked white from far, far away. When you approached him you noticed his African features. Being in the band meant that he was the voice of black Cuba trying to cross the bridge. He sang black music to everybody. He sang stuff composed by Ignacio, who composed some 3000 tunes. My father knew these tunes. He grew up with this stuff. No one else stayed with the band as long as he did. It's the same relationship which existed some 40 years later when I joined Arsenio. I learned all Arsenio's stuff. I still know Arsenio's book by heart.

We served as pioneers in a unifying way to bring the groups together: the sons of Africans and the sons of Spaniards. We were all Cubans, but we were culturally diverse. We brought all the groups together with our music. My father was a beloved singer in Cuba, and he also acted as a pioneer. He came to the United States in 1933, representing Cuban folklore at the World Fair. He acted as a messenger of Cuban folklore. He made a full length movie in 1937, Sucedió en la Havana , where he sings the music of Ernesto Lecuona. It was either the first or second movie made by the first Cuban cinematographic firm founded by General Batista. My father was a friend of Batista and he helped my father get the part in the movie.


What notable musicians do you remember meeting in Cuba?

I remember meeting Manzano at one of the rehearsals of Orquesta Anacaona when my mother was in the orchestra. He was teaching the girls how to play percussion and taught my mother how to play congas. He was one of the greatest conga players in Cuba in the old days; he's Candido's uncle. He taught Candido how to play the congas. Things like that stay with you when you experience them early in your life. You tend to remember the old things and not the more recent experiences.

I remember meeting Bebo Valdés in 1955 when he was at CMQ rehearsing for Casino de la Alegre and Jueves de Partagás , two of the best TV shows in Cuba in the mid-'50s. I used to go there because my uncles were in the band at CMQ. I remember the tunes Bebo composed back then in the early '50s like "Rareza del Siglo," and "Güempa," He talked about how nice Puerto Rico was and his desire to leave Cuba. Castro was not even around, but he was talking about his anxiety to try living in other places. My father expressed the same desire and the year after that he and I came to New York to stay.

I met Beny Moré in Buena Vista before I came to the States. My first cousin Lázaro Valdés became his pianist. When I went to Cuba for a week in 1960 I met Chucho Valdés and Lázaro reintroduced me to Beny. Soon after that meeting Beny passed away. Chucho was a kid and he played excellent piano, even back then.


You and your father relocated to New York in the mid-'50s?

That was in 1956. In the '50s my father had a charanga group here in New York.


You initially played with your dad's band?

Yes. Of course I was young and inexperienced. My father knew I had the background: I was Cuban. I had lived there until I was 15. My ear was trained to listening to good Cuban music. So there was no reason why I wouldn't be able to compete decently and fairly in the ambiance of the New York music scene, which was dominated by Cuban music. There was no Dominican, and very little Puerto Rican. They didn't play bombas or plenas. There were more Puerto Ricans than Cubans in New York, and there were more Cubans that Dominicans. We did dance merengue quite a bit, but the scene was dominated by the Cuban scene. This had been so since the '40s; maybe before. Everyone danced mambo and cha cha in the late '50s here in New York: at the Palladium, the Manhattan Center, Rivera Terrace. These were the places where we jammed. This is where you would find Arsenio Rodríguez, Pete Terrace, Puente, Machito, Tito Rodríguez and the other big bands, and not so big bands: groups. At that time the groups were getting smaller. The combos were starting to make their appearance in the late '50s.

My father tried by every means possible to help me acquire the experience I needed to be able to play, if not compete, with the local groups. Especially with his group. I certainly had the classical background. I had enough education in the Spanish classics, if not the Cuban classics. I played stuff by Lecuona and Cervantes, the stuff we kids grew up playing, studying and listening to in Cuba. I successfully played most of the stuff Lecuona wrote: "Malagueña," "Andalucía," "La Comparsa." I'm talking about the original works. I was good enough. I was actually doing the fifth year of Hilario Orbón, which was the epitome of Cuban piano methods.

Anyway I was fairly beginning to grasp what was going on. Of course I resisted having to go to bed at five in the morning, four in the morning. I hated it. I really didn't want any part of that. I just wanted to get a nine to five job. At that time I was a student at RCA. I studied electronics there. I just wanted to go work for defense, because I figured that I would have plenty of work. That was the time of the Cold War. So I figured that this was a sure way of being useful to the defense machine. And I would be able to get my American citizenship, which is what I really wanted. I was not a veteran, so I figured that at least I would ship in my knowledge and work towards the defense objective. I applied to several places, but I was unsuccessful because the jobs were reserved for veterans and American citizens. But nevertheless I did become a citizen in '62 after I graduated from RCA. Then I was able to work for some of these companies.


Tell us how you hooked-up with Arsenio in New York.

I met Arsenio in 1957 or '58 when I was playing in a club on Prospect Avenue. He asked me if I was living with my parents. I said: "Yeah, I'm still living with my parents." He invited me to do a recital. I did some stuff by Cervantes. About a year after, he was having problems with his pianist Emilio, who was a junkie. He never showed up on time and was screwing up. He was asking to be paid in advance because he needed a fix. I was a young clean cut kid, and he says: "Alfredo, I need you for the band." But I said: "Are you sure I'm ready because I've never played this type of music before." He says: "No problem, you've got it in your blood. All you need to do is show up to the rehearsals." "Are you sure you've got the patience?" "Sure I've got the patience. Don't you worry about a thing." I think my father helped set the whole thing up.

A couple of weeks after, I started with Arsenio, and that was 1959. In that same year I joined the Musicians Union: the Local 802. In 1960 I recorded my very first album with Arsenio for SMC. The album was entitled Fiesta en Harlem . It's never been reissued. Some of the other stuff I did was with my father in the '50s, but I have very little recollection of which tunes I played on. They were incidentals I did with my father's charanga. Those credits were shared with René Hernández. Not Machito's pianist René Hernández, but René "El Latigo" Hernández, who was a tall slim pianist, and he had just arrived in New York. He played with José Fajardo. He was considered one of the best charanga pianists in Cuba. His brother was a violinist in Cuba. Pedro was his name. Pedro Hernández wrote danzones in Cuba.

Arsenio was a mentor to me. I was playing with Arsenio less than three years after I arrived in New York. I had always been a fan of Arsenio from the early days. "Buena Vista En Guaguancó" (from Sabroso y Caliente '57 on Puchito) was one of his tunes I loved to dance to.


You went on to became a founding member of Ray Barretto's Charanga Moderna?

Yeah. In '62 I joined the newly formed Ray Barretto band. Barretto had just recorded an album, but he did not have a working band until I joined the band. We put together a little charanga group. Barretto had just left the Lou Pérez orchestra, with whom he played conga. In that year of '62 we started gigging. Almost immediately after we started gigging, he hooked up with Tico Records, and we made the famous "El Watusi" record (included in Charanga Moderna ) in '62, which made the crossover [charts] in that year. I participated in a total of five albums between '62 and '64: there were four with Tico (Charanga Moderna '62, On Fire Again '63, The Big Hits Latin Style '63, La Moderna de Siempre '64) and there was one with Riverside, the famous Latino ('62).



Then an opportunity to join Machito arose?

In '64 I joined the Machito orchestra. His pianist, René Hernández, not "El Latigo", was trying to quit Machito, and was already doing stuff for Tito Rodríguez. And Tito Rodríguez wanted to take his band to Puerto Rico. He wanted to relocate there. One way of disconnecting from Machito was to have a piano player take his post. So he called me up, and I started doing jobs in preparation for the South American tour. In December of 1964 we left for Colombia. We flew into Bogotá. There I started with Machito.

It was a disastrous tour. The impresario disappeared with thousands of dollars in payroll money and went to Argentina. No one heard of him ever again. That was like his life hit! He was able to retire with that kind of money and live the last years of his life in comfort and luxury in Buenos Aires. I had left my fiance Carmen behind in New York, who was pregnant with my only daughter. That was very painful, because I never thought the trip would end up the way it did.


What impact did the Cuban Revolution have on Cuban musicians and Latin music in the US?

In the early days of the Revolution in the early '60s there was an apathy in the United States about things to do with Cuba. Son montuno turned into boogaloo. It was all a mocking. It was all insignificant. What was really Cuban lost its sheen. Maybe politics had a lot to do with it. We, here in the United States, I believe we suffered the consequences of the Cuban/ American relationship being on the rocks. That actually caused my dad and me to have to get a day job. We were not helped. We were not received here. Castro doing all the things he was doing in Cuba, like bringing the Russians over and singing anti-American chants, and stuff like that. This was all detrimental. This was all bad for us Cuban-Americans. We paid for it, and we paid dearly for the things he was doing there.


What prompted your move to the West Coast?

At that time there were a lot of New York musicians moving to LA, like Rolando Lozano, Nicolas Martínez "Cuco" (the timbal player with Mongo Santamaría, who was also a bass player), Pat Rodríguez (the timbal player with Tito Rodríguez) and Raúl Travieso (Arsenio's brother). A complete New York scene was relocating to LA. This displacement in musicians was due to the bands in New York being reduced down from big bands to combos. Combined with the growth in defense jobs and other attractive things on the West Coast. Federal money was being poured into the Coast and most jobs seemed to be there. Shipbuilding and everything else was happening there. I didn't want to fall behind, because one of my objectives was to get a job in the defense sector.

So when I returned from Peru with Machito in March of '65, we rushed and got married right away. My wife was already six months pregnant. That time was a different era, so it was shameful for me to face the fact that my wife had become pregnant before marriage. I didn't want my wife to give birth shortly after we got married. So I said: "Let's get out of here. It's better for us." I had connected with René Bloch. During the '50s he played lead alto with the Pérez Prado big band and had been all over the world with Prado. At that time he managed a small place he had leased on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles called the Havana Club. He had a big band there. When I went to LA with Ray Barretto in '63 we went to the Havana Club twice that year. I kept in touch with René and told him of my desire to leave New York for a change.

René Bloch said: "Sure, I'll bring you over. I'll send you your trip money if you write and play for the band. How long do you need?" I said: "Give me a year. Assure me that I will be connected with your band and your club for a year. That will give me enough time for me to check what's going on in LA, and after that you don't have to worry about me. I'll look after myself."

After I got married in April '65, my wife and I drove across country to Los Angeles. In that same month I started working with René Bloch. I worked with René the entire year of 1965 and 1966. I hooked up with a band called Las Estrellas del Tropico, which was a small group from East LA with Nicolas Martínez "Cuco" playing bass. Around '66/'67 I joined the Roger Darius orchestra, which also worked at the Havana Club. Roger Darius played percussion with Xavier Cugat. In the middle of that I also worked in Reno for a season with a singer from Los Angeles, Una Helena. In 1967 Roger Darius left the band and I became the leader. I stayed there until about '68. At that time Ruth Fernández, the senator from Puerto Rico, my godmother and also a singer, came to Los Angeles and I backed her with my own big band at a famous place called the Embassy. She's in her eighties now. At the same time I was working days for the RCA company in LA. In '68 I opened a small business in LA. In '69 I had my second kid, Alfred, who passed away in '90 in an traffic accident in New York. He was 21.

At the beginning of the '70s I joined the Johnny "Chano" Martínez orchestra. They were an important band in LA. In fact it was the busiest band in LA. In northern California there was Cal Tjader and in southern California it was Johnny Martínez. We had a gig every day all over southern California from San Diego all the way to Santa Barbara. At that time I said: "I'm 30 years old, so let me go back to school and get some kind of a degree." That's the time I went to LACC, Los Angeles City College, and got my associate's [degree] there. I was gigging seven days a week. Sometimes we did two gigs in a day. Sometimes even three. We were turning maybe 10 or 12 gigs a week. The money wasn't the greatest, but I was doing well. I was doing what I like to do best, which is playing. And playing the kinda stuff that I like, which was Latin jazz and a little bit of salsa. I stayed with the Johnny Martínez band between '71 and '76, when I decided to go back to New York.

By that time my wife was fed up already with seeing me running all over southern California in my new car. It was too much for her, she was taking care of both kids. In fact she was carrying the burden of the family on her shoulders. She hardly ever saw me. So, fed up with it, she left in '74 and went back to New York. After I came back to New York, of course, we never made it work again.


So what happened back in the Big Apple?

In '76 I joined the newly formed Mario Bauzá and Graciela orchestra. I did the album called La Botanica in 1976 (released in '77 on Lamp/Coco). I also did something with the leader of Africando, Boncana Maiga, the flutist from Africa. His brother-in-law Ronnie Baro got me into that session (tracks are collected on Boncana's Best of Salsa '98 on Maestro Sound). I also did Orquesta Cimarrón co-led by Ron Davis. He was a trombonist and had a masters from the Manhattan School of Music. That's the band Tito Nieves started singing with. I also recorded on their album (Erupción '77 on Lamp/Coco).

I transferred all of my credits to Queens College and in '79 I graduated [with degrees] in Spanish literature and education. What I really wanted was a degree. It didn't matter which field, I just wanted a piece of paper on the wall. However most of my credits were in music. All I really wanted was a nine-to-five job because I'm a bureaucrat at heart.


Tell us how the SAR and Sacodis phenomenon began and how you got involved.

There has always been an interest in Cuban music in West Africa since the days Pacheco went there with Monguito in the '60s. You must remember that Laba Sosseh had been to Cuba and made several recordings with Orquesta Aragón. He's a star and well known in Cuba and Africa. Even though he's not doing as much as he once did, this doesn't reflect the fame he once had. He's nevertheless a legend.

In the late '70s there was this diplomatic attaché from Cameroon and Gabon, living here in New York, who happened to love Cuban music. They approached us, started buying large quantities of our records and befriended us. And continued by making suggestions to us. Actually Aboudou Lassissi, who had just arrived in New York from Abidjan, Ivory Coast, with a large amount of money, had a lot to do with it. I don't know where he got the money from, but he had a lot of cash at his disposal. We produced about two or three albums a week. This was all thanks to this diplomatic attaché.

SAR continually received input from old timers in the New York industry who knew the record business internationally, like Johnny Pacheco and my dad, to name a few. They would come in and give information to Sergio Bofil, Adriano García and Roberto Torres (SAR's co-founders). However the final word came from the African diplomats. They placed their fingers exactly on the styles; the names of the artists; the stuff that should be recorded; and who to talk to in order to take the company to West Africa. All of this information came first hand from these individuals and helped to bring our entire company, with all of its artists as well as their wives, to Africa on three separate occasions. I am proud to say I was on two of the three, because pianist/ arranger Manolo Albo, a founding member of SAR, went on the first. We performed and toured all over West Africa: Yaoundé (the capital city) and Duoala in Cameroon and the Ivory Coast. We did a concert for the president of Gabon.

Before I graduated from Queens in June '79 I was hired to do a session with Monguito El Unico for SAR Records. I did two tunes for that particular album (Yo No Soy Mentiroso '79). Lassissi started Sacodis and named Monguito the producer. So then Monguito and I worked a little deal. I started turning arrangements for him really cheaply and fast. Simple little charts which were all pretty much alike. I called them the Model T arrangements. I devised a formula that would allow us to go into the studio and walk out in three hours. I would be able to do six arrangements in a day. We would be able to do everything in eight or nine hours. It was great. Perfect. I said: "Monguito, I'm your man."

Roberto Torres was having a little bit of a problem with his piano player Manolo Albo, SAR's original musical director. His family wanted him to have a more stable job with a dependable income. So Manolo quit the company after a short while and got a job in some hospital doing I don't know exactly what. Pretty soon after Roberto Torres listened to the two charts I did for Monguito's first SAR album, he decided to hire me. I took over Manolo's post at SAR and started producing and arranging. Therefore I was producing, arranging and performing for two companies: Sacodis of Abidjan and SAR. SAR grew to Guajiro Records and various other companies that sprang out of nowhere. I started doing stuff for them as well. I also did Noche Caliente for a company on the West Coast. Those were rich times. In addition to Africa, there were trips to Europe and South America. I was travelling with both Roberto, with the SAR company, and Monguito.

Then in '82 everything kinda slowed down.

Around that same time a trip cropped up to go to the Dominican Republic with Henry Fiol. I didn't go. Alfredo Rodríguez was on piano. It was a disaster. Henry stopped the band cold in the middle of a TV show and they almost killed him. There was a mob trying to beat him up. I didn't know this was going on. I was too wrapped up doing stuff for Monguito and Lassissi.


So why did the SAR roller coaster run out of steam?

I guess it went over Roberto's head. The company had grown to unexpected levels and he didn't know how to manage and what the hell to do with it in New York. He decided to take it all to Miami, where it is more benign and he would be dealing with his own people. He felt more comfortable with his company established there. His company is still going.


What did you get up to when the SAR thing waned?

Meanwhile I started arranging for different people here in New York. Then from '83 up until 1989 I started doing nightclub work as a pianist in a place in Jamaica, Queens, called La Bamba. I was a piano player and music director there for a number of years doing four to six nights a week. We would have floor shows and stuff like that. From time to time I would also produce and record for GB Records on 10th Avenue, the same people who distributed and are still distributing the SAR and Sacodis records. In that period of six years between '83 and '89 I did a total of about 10-15 albums. I did an album for Lassissi called A Cataño (c '84 on Sacodis, featuring a version of "La Bamba" inspired by the arrangement of the song on Dioris Valladares' album Vete Pa'l Colegio '61 on Alegre) with Carlos "El Grande" from Panama singing. I did one called Su Piano y su Sabor! ('86 on Palm). It had Paquito D'Rivera as an invited guest. I arranged and played on a couple of albums with Melcochita and José Mangual Jr., who teamed up together to produce for Caballo and Tibiri (Con Sabor a Pueblo '86 and El Muerto Se Fué De Rumba '87 respectively). Melcochita also did a production for Lassissi (A Commer Lechon c '84, with piano, arrangements and musical direction by Alfredito) and sang coro on A Cataño . I did the Charanga Ranchera ('89 on The Mayor), which was my own charanga playing Mexican music in Cuban style.


How did your association with Cachao begin?

I got a call from the Colombian piano player Eddie Martínez in Miami. His girlfriend was beginning to manage Cachao. She had a connection with the colleges and universities and thought the danzón style would be very appealing to the academic circles and musicologists throughout the nation. So she began to sell Cachao's concerts to colleges throughout the country in early '91. Eddie Martínez wasn't a good sight reader and wasn't Cuban. He has a great ear but he didn't know from Jack what to do with danzón. He was more of a jazz player. So I was the man. I was the person who had the background and was a good sight reader. So whatever Cachao wrote I could read with no hesitation. Eddie did some of the early jobs, like the Lincoln Center. But that was it, he knew he wasn't the man for it. So he gave up his place to me of his own free will. He was the one who actually got me in. I did the subsequent jobs and have been with Cachao ever since.


You did another solo project in the early '90s?

In '92 I did Up Tempo Mood (on Turquino). That's another of my piano things featuring Giovanni Hidalgo, Mario Rivera, Piro Rodríguez and some of the guys from Puente's rhythm section. That was an excellent album. Some folks like the first one Su Piano y su Sabor! better. Some like the second better. In 1993 I recorded the Grammy winning album Master Sessions Volume 1 with Cachao ('94 on Epic's Crescent Moon label). And we went to festivals: we did the North Sea Jazz Festival, Playboy Jazz Festival, and re-recorded a track from Master Sessions for Andy García's movie Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead .


Then you began leading descarga sessions with the Caimán All Stars?

Yes, after doing the Grammy winning album with Cachao in '93 I hooked-up with Humberto Corredor's Caimán Records. With them I've done three Caimán All Stars albums (Descarga In New York '95, Descarga del Milenio '97 and Descarga Brava 2000! '99) and the Papaíto production. In '98 and '99 I did two albums with Jimmy Bosch (Soneando Trombón '98 and Salsa Dura '99 on RykoLatino). I toured with Jimmy and Cachao.

I did two productions in Mexico in January 2000 with local labels there. I'm trying to create a little scene there to get to be known. It's a country of 100 million people. It's good to be known there. It's a rich/ poor country. You have these two sectors. Even the poor are pretty aware people. They're down but not out. They're pretty well informed and streetwise.


What's your take on the '90s rebirth of old time Cuban music?

This is good what some of the labels are doing. I think that they are doing a service to bring together the old generations and to bring together the cultural gap and to rescue the old ideals. To bring the people together. I think we need to get together for the sake of Cubans and the world. We need for Fidel to step down and allow the new generations to rescue our past and to rescue our people. I do want to go to Cuba. I would like for Cuba and the United States to be friends again. I'm not going to Cuba until this happens. I haven't been to Cuba in 40 years, and I will not go back until the two countries have reunited.

Some of these labels are not giving a fair share to these artists, and we all know it. But at least they are attempting to expose the new generations to the things my dad did, and some of his contemporaries such as Ibrahim Ferrer. By the way, these folks were unknown when my father had a great name. But nevertheless they represent the generation of my father, or perhaps the subsequent generations. It has brought dignity to Cuban music and the Cuban culture of past generations. I guess it's brought money into some of the sectors. I don't believe these sectors are distributing this money fairly. I think the artist class is still suffering. Nevertheless they are trying to expose the world masses to Cuban music. They are making money and getting rich, too. I kinda have mixed feelings about them because they are not sharing the money properly, but you can't deny they are doing a service.


You mentioned something outside this interview about follow-ups to the Buena Vista Social Club?

There have been a couple of productions with Juan Pablo Torres, with arrangements by him. The first one Descarga AfroCubana (1998 on Caimán) had Pachu (Feliciano Gómez) on trumpet and some locals from New Jersey. I was on piano. The second one took place on July 1st 1998 and had Ibrahim Ferrer and all the Buena Vista Social Club group except Rubén González. I was on piano. It was a production of Caimán Records New York and came out pretty good. However I understand from the president of Caimán Records, Humberto Corredor, that the album cannot be released because of the contractual responsibilities of the Buena Vista Social Club to other labels. When Juan Pablo Torres visited Cuba, he made a similar album there in 1999. When the producer completed the album and returned to the United States, he found out that he'd run into the same type of situation where the artists in Cuba had contractual agreements with labels which would not allow the release of the record. So there has been excellent stuff done that has not yet been heard because of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo.


Was it in the style of the first Buena Vista, or was it something different?

It was the Buena Vista Social Club, but then again it had a different vibe. With Rubén González not being there, the band took a different course: not as traditional, but nevertheless, very attractive and avant garde. It's adjusted to the ideals of modern Cuba, because modern Cuban music is not at all traditional and is always looking for something fresh. Juan Pablo Torres' arrangements were excellent. My performance was very good. It is an album I'd recommend. I'm looking forward to seeing it being released. We'll have to steal or bootleg it, or kidnap Humberto and hold him to ransom!


What do you say to those who put down the Buena Vista Social Club-inspired revival of Cuban nostalgia?

To me this music has an inherent importance, however, some of my colleagues don't see it that way. This is really sad. I sometimes have to fight. Money is an element which is important, but it's not my prime motivation in being a musician. I want to really really play Cuban music, a style that is dying. I like to rescue some of the styles and forms that are no longer being played as they once were. It's our tradition, our heritage, and it must not be allowed to die yet there's always the same contradiction between business and art.
Click here for the complete Alfredo Valdés discography.



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