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Dr. Ken "Leo" Rosa interviews bandleaders Miguelito Valdés and Anselmo Sacasas

Miguelito Valdés and
Anselmo Sacasas Speak

Interview by Dr. Ken "Leo" Rosa
with introduction by John Child (

At the age of 64, the great Miguelito Valdés gave possibly his first in-depth radio interview in English to Dr. Ken "Leo" Rosa and the distinguished pianist, composer, arranger, bandleader and producer Héctor Rivera in 1975, which was broadcast on March 8th that year. The interview provides a priceless insight into Miguelito's illustrious career; plus his observations about the Latin music industry 26 years ago merit consideration today.

The following year, Dr. Ken "Leo" Rosa briefly interviewed Miguelito's former colleague from the Casino de la Playa Orchestra, Anselmo Sacasas, who many credited as the originator of the Latin piano solo. A transcription of this interview, which was broadcast in New York on April 24th 1976, immediately follows the Miguelito Valdés piece.

Dr. Ken "Leo" Rosa is virtually the only surviving pianist to have known and been directly influenced by the legendary Noro Morales, pioneer of the Latin piano and rhythm style. Ken refreshingly recreates, as well as extemporises in, Noro's inimitable style, as evidenced by his performance on the WNYC radio show Around New York on September 29th 1994. His combo for the date included New York salsa luminaries Andy González (bass), Wayne Gorbea (claves), Milton Cardona (conga), Jimmy Delgado (bongo) and Johnny Almendra (timbales). Ken's diverse accomplishments include the classic piano and rhythm album Piano Magico recorded in Cuba in 1958 on the Puchito label, whose '50s catalogue included legendary albums by Arsenio Rodríguez, Félix Chappottín and Miguelito Cuní, Abelardo Barroso and Orquesta Sensación, Conjunto Estrellas de Chocolate, Roberto Faz and others.


Dr. Ken "Leo" Rosa (KLR): I want to ask you a few little questions.

Miguelito Valdés (MV): Well, you go ahead. That's what you're here for.

KLR: The first thing I'd like to ask you: where were you born?

MV: I was born in Havana, Cuba. So many years ago that I cannot remember. (Laughter)

KLR: How did you start working in music?

MV: Actually, Leo, I was a prize fighter. I was an amateur boxer, fighting with the YMCA. And out of that society, I was fighting under the welterweight division. I am very proud to say that in 1929 I was the amateur welterweight champion. Every fighter had a little hobby. Mine was singing. So that every time I had an interview on radio, or whatever, they asked me to sing. So I became popular as the boxer who could sing. That was accepted in such a beautiful way, that I made the switch. And I believe I made the right decision. This was back in 1928/1929.

Then I started singing with María Teresa Vera, who was my guitar and singing teacher. And I started to work with her group. I started to work at the Rialto nightclub, and places like that; back in Havana. Then from there, back in '33, I did my first trip out of the country. I went to Panama. I stayed in Panama until '36. When I came back (to Cuba), first I joined the Hermanos Castro Orchestra. And then from there, seven members of the orchestra started a corporation, the Casino de la Playa Orchestra.

KLR: Who was the piano player?

MV: Anselmo Sacasas, who today is still the musical director of the San Juan Hotel in Puerto Rico.

KLR: Sacasas was the man who originated the piano solo with the orchestra.

MV: You can really say that Leo; because in those years it was only the tres (guitar), which is a typical Cuban instrument, that soloed. Sacasas copied that idea, so that every time there was a space, he used to fill it with a little phrasing. Actually that phrasing became bigger and bigger and he was doing so well, and people really liked it, that it became like a regular solo. I would sing, and after that, I'd do about three or four improvisations, and then Sacasas would take over with a solo; and then I'd come back again.

KLR: This was around what year?

MV: That was in 1937, with the first recording we did with RCA Victor.

KLR: When and how did you happen to come to the United States?

MV: That's a good question. Back in '38 we were working in Havana, and every time Xavier Cugat came to Havana, he always asked me: "When are you going to join me? I want you in New York." I said: "Well, I'm not only a member of this organisation, I'm an owner of this organisation. This is a corporation. And by the way, I'm the administrator of the Casino de la Playa Orchestra. I'm the singer and I'm the drummer. So you see, I don't think it can be possible." And after that, it was like a little bug, going around my head all the time. So after four years with the Casino de la Playa Orchestra, I wanted to to make it big. I wanted to go to the big country, to the country of opportunity, which is this one (USA). So I came to New York on May 16th 1940. I don't even forget the day. One month after I was with the Xavier Cugat Orchestra at the Waldorf Astoria.

KLR: When did you record "Babalú" with Cugat?

MV: Before that we recorded the original "Babalú" with the Casino de la Playa Orchestra back in Havana (available on Memories Of Cuba 1937-44 '91 on Tumbao). Then I did the second recording of "Babalú" with Cugat in 1941 for Columbia Records (available on Xavier Cugat And His Orchestra 1940-42 '91 on Tumbao).

KLR: I heard a rumour that back in what I call the golden era of New York Latin music, there was a deal between all of the top Latin bandleaders to purchase the Palladium Ballroom which fell through.

MV: Oh, yes. And today we're still sorry that we didn't. Let me tell you: that was a combination of Machito, Tito Puente, Noro Morales and myself. How do you know that?!

KLR: Somebody told me.

MV: The silly thing is that we only had to put in about $2,500 a piece. The owner, Mr Hyman, was a nervous wreck and wanted to get out of the business. So he spoke to me first. And then I approached Noro Morales. Noro Morales was so busy buying jewels, so much gold and everything. He listened to me and said: "Hey, it's a good idea." But never did anything about it. Then I spoke to Tito Puente. In those days, Tito Puente didn't have an orchestra; he had a group. And by the way, Vicentico Valdés was his vocalist. I spoke to Tito, and Tito said: "Well, at this moment I don't have the money, but I can get it." And Machito said: "Well, I don't know." Machito always thinks twice before making a decision. The thing is we didn't get together about the idea. And today, we're sorry we didn't.

KLR: I'd like to ask you about some of the recordings you've made with Machito.

MV: Oh my gosh. The first group of recordings we did was for Decca Records, which were Afro-Cuban numbers. I remember we had a deadline, because of that famous strike. We had 48 hours to do two albums.

KLR: What year was that?

MV: That was 1945/46. Maybe '43. I'm not sure. But it's in the '40s. We came with such hits like "Bim Bam Bum", "Oye Negra", "Rica Pulpa", "Drume Negrita" (all collected on Cuban Rhythms '92 on Tumbao). Everyone was like a lucky thing. We recorded 24 numbers in 48 hours. How can I forget. When I was singing "Oye Negra", it was the very last one I recorded: I didn't even have a voice, I was singing with my soul. Then later I did Reunion (1963 on Tico), which I believe is one of the very best records I ever made in my life.

Héctor Rivera (HR): Who were the pianists with your orchestra?

MV: René Hernández, and then later Luisito Benjamín.

HR: Al Escobar was there for a few years.

MV: Al Escobar was about 18-19 years old. He had to have permission to play in the nightclub. Police card and everything.

HR: You had the percussionists Sabú, Pepé Becke and "Little Ray" Romero in the band.

MV: Some of the records I did in '46/'48, I did with Chano Pozo. He was my conga drummer.

HR: Did you have two conga players and a bongo player?

MV: The bongo is a very difficult instrument. I play bongo myself, so I know. I don't consider more than six bongo players in the whole world, because the bongo player is someone who can create confusion in the orchestration. The bongo player always has a tendency to play the same thing; always conflicting with the phrasing of the orchestra. You have to have a player that knows not only how to get a good sound out of the instrument, but also be intelligent enough to learn the orchestration. Ignore the breaks; the breaks he can learn; he has to go with the phrasing of the orchestra. Or he's going in completely the opposite direction, and creates conflict. Ramóncito Castro* was one of the greatest. Chino Pozo is very clever. Little Ray is excellent, beautiful.

(*Regarded as Casino de la Playa's 12th member, black bongosero Ramón Castro recorded with the band, but was replaced by a white percussionist for segregated gigs.)

HR: Did Little Ray play bongo or conga in the orchestra?

MV: That's why, when he was in the orchestra, I changed to two conga drums to get a more solid sound. But if you have two conga drums, you have to know how to use them: one plays like the bass, the other is the syncopation. Even when I took a big band out of New York to Uruguay and Brazil for Mardi Gras, I used two conga players.

KLR: Tell us some more of the great musicians you've had playing in your orchestra?

MV: Al Stewart on trumpet. Al Porcino (trumpeter) made some recordings with us for a while. Then once I had this crazy guy, Stan Getz (tenor sax). Another crazy guy was Gerry Mulligan on baritone, who never wanted to hear the piano. I had a beautiful, beautiful orchestra. I was always looking for the best, and when you're looking for the best, you pay for the best. Even my orchestrations in those years. Eddie Sauter used to write for me. Chico O'Farrill in the beginning. Pérez Prado used to write some stuff. René Hernández did the majority of the stuff.

HR: Who did "Gandinga" (available on Mambo Dance Session '94 on Caribe and Algo Nuevo '00 on Tumbao).

MV: I think that René did it.

KLR: I remember that. I love it. Miguelito, did you make any other changes to your orchestra?

MV: Oh gosh. I added strings. I played the Coconut Grove and all those hotels. They protested about the cost, but I got away with it because I sold my act as an orchestra plus a show. The only thing that I needed was maybe a comedian. So that's what saved me. So I could ask for that money, and the boys made more money.

KLR: What's your view of the co-called salsa of today?

MV: So now, Leo, when they are talking about salsa, they are talking about so many beautiful things. I'm glad, because I'm not the type of person that's going to knock anybody or say: "No, no, no." This is just a beautiful continuation of something that started many years ago. I'm glad it's still alive.

KLR: As far as so-called salsa is concerned, the only thing I try to bring out on the radio programme I do, is that I play records by the originals. Because I think the originals, like yourself, should not be forgotten.

MV: Well, thank you very much.

KLR: The originals are the ones who established, who created, this music.

MV: Thank you very much. It's a florid thing to receive words like this. I used to be spoilt. I used to go on stage and do four or six numbers; all with dignity and to the best of my ability. Today, I'm not satisfied with that. Today, I look at my watch, and if I do less than an hour, I'm not satisfied with myself. So I have to do an hour of the strongest things I have. I don't sleep or nothing, or lay down. Everything has to be strong. Why? Because, remember, at the beginning I was a fighter, so I'm still fighting. To me, everything is a challenge. I've been in this business more than 38 or 40 years, and when they say: "When did you do your very best?" I say: "I'm still doing it. Right now, I'm still at my best." Why? I'm always looking for something new and creative. I admire and love everything that sounds good. I believe in those things.

KLR: There is a pet peeve of I mine I want to ask your opinion about. It gets me very angry when myself, or any other pianist, takes a solo and the rhythm section doesn't keep straight rhythm.

MV: I agree with you. When you see a jazz man doing a solo, the rest are doing a riff in unison behind the solo. The solo has to be respected, because to do a solo you have to concentrate in order to create. If you have anything that interferes with you, be it a percussionist or another member, that will completely throw you out.

KLR: That is the gripe I have with many of the young rhythm sections of today. They get in the way of the soloists.

MV: You've said it. They're young and they don't know any better. Somebody will have to come in and explain to them: "It's a solo, you respect that man. You keep it straight like a train. Don't move. Give it some flavour, but two solos at the same time is impossible." That can drive anybody crazy.

KLR: Miguelito, what were you saying earlier about the record business?

MV: At the present moment a lot of guys call themselves "record producers". I say: "What do you mean, you're producing a record? You're not a musician. You don't know anything about music." To produce a record you have to know the orchestration. When you're sitting with the technicians in the studio, you have to be able to say: "Bring me the trumpet. No, no, lay down the bass. Give me a little bass." You have to know what you're talking about. But these guys are doing it by ear. You know, 99% of them don't even know how to dance. They're not even artists. They've not been entertainers or anything. How are they producing a record? I'm not trying to criticise, but I think they are stealing money from the public.

KLR: And from the record company.

MV: From the record company, and they are insulting the professional musicians who are sitting there. I wouldn't take that. Anyone who's sitting at the controls when I'm recording has to be a professional. If he's going to tell me what to do, he has to know theoretically what I'm doing. If he doesn't know, I'd say: "You better get outta here. You're not a musician. You're not an artist. What are you doing here?!"

KLR: Absolutely.

MV: All these things happen today, and shouldn't happen because it's a beautiful young generation. It's a beautiful music that's going on. I don't know why we have the wrong people doing the wrong thing.

KLR: That's what happens, though. The wrong people have taken control of this business. Miguel, I think that's enough questions for today.

MV: You've finished your questions, but I have a very beautiful question that I want to ask you. Not only me, but all my pals, especially musicians, have known Leo Rosa as a musician for a long, long time. I want to know how you became a Doctor of Chiropractic?

KLR: Oh, yes. I went to school for six years to become a Doctor of Chiropractic. I graduated in 1962, and I've been in practice ever since. It's a wonderful profession, because we're able to help sick and suffering humanity.

MV: This man in front of me makes me proud.


Dr Ken "Leo" Rosa (KLR): Out of the Casino de la Playa Orchestra came a couple of stars, the vocalist Miguelito Valdés and the pianist Anselmo Sacasas, who is alleged to have started the piano solo, the piano montuno. Anselmo Sacasas today (1976) is the musical director of the San Juan Hotel in Puerto Rico. He's in charge of the acts that appear there, like Milton Berle and so many others.

I'm speaking to the great pianist, Anselmo Sacasas. I'd like to know a few of your memories of when you were with Casino de la Playa. For instance, it is said that you are the one that really originated the piano montuno.

Anselmo Sacasas (AS): That's what they say. I didn't originate the piano montuno. The piano montuno was originated in the charangas. I started my schooling in popular music playing charanga. Consequently, when I left the charanga and joined, what we called in those days, a jazz band, I started experimenting and showing off on the piano.

KLR: Miguelito says you used to do a lot of filling-in with the piano.

AS: True.

KLR: And little by little, the filling got to be longer and longer and longer.

AS: I was playing nothing but charanga in Havana. Then when Miguelito joined Hermanos Castro, he contacted me and said: "They don't have any arrangements of Latin music. So we need somebody." The piano player was one of the leader's brothers. So they fired him, and Miguel recommended me. When I started with the Hermanos Castro, I found they only had one Latin arrangement, an old tune called "Masabí". So we started to turn the jazz band into an orchestra that played Latin music. When we left Hermanos Castro, three years after that, to organise the Casino de la Playa Orchestra, Hermanos Castro was playing nothing but Latin music. (Manolo) Castro needed Miguelito, and I was behind doing all the arrangements.

KLR: About what year was that?

AS: We're talking about 1935, because in 1937 we organised Casino de la Playa, which came out of Hermanos Castro.

KLR: I have a record of you and your orchestra called "Lengua Mala" (available on both Poco Loco '95 on Tumbao and Anselmo Sacasas and his Orchestra 1942-1944 '96 on Harlequin), and you take a fine piano solo. I've noticed one thing: I think your style might have influenced Noro Morales.

AS: Perhaps, because Noro was a very good friend of mine. We kept our friendship until he died (in 1964). He told me that when he was living in Puerto Rico, they used to listen to our famous broadcasts from Havana between 12:30 and 1:30 in the afternoons. In Puerto Rico they listened to nothing but Casino de la Playa, and used to copy us. So Noro started from there.

KLR: Beautiful. A long time ago, Rafael Elvira, who used to play piano with the Rafael Muñoz Orchestra, mentioned something about that. (Rafael Muñoz Volumes 1 to 4 '97-9 on Harlequin, collected recordings made by his orchestra between 1938 and 1943.)

AS: The two bands had the opportunity to play together, because the first trip Casino de la Playa made out of Cuba was to Puerto Rico. And we played with Rafael Muñoz, who in those days, was the number one band in Puerto Rico. And Elvira was the pianist.

KLR: At that time, what music were they playing in Puerto Rico?

AS: Nothing but Casino de la Playa music: boleros. Slow boleros like "Toboga" and "Dolor Cobarde" (both available on Orquesta Casino de la Playa '95 on Harlequin). It was a romanticera in those days. The only excitement after the bolero, was really the montuno, and the Afro music we also started introducing in those days. Miguel with the famous "Babalú" and "Bruca Manigua" by Arsenio Rodríguez (both on Memories Of Cuba 1937-44 '91 on Tumbao). And other Arsenio compositions, such as "Yo Soy Gangá" (included in Orquesta Casino de la Playa '95 on Harlequin). In Puerto Rico, in those days, they were playing nothing but boleros and guarachas; but not a fast guaracha. Just medium tempo.

KLR: Where did the Puerto Rican musicians learn the guaracha?

AS: From Cuba. The Latin islands in the Caribbean are very close. We've been close for years. Like Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico, Haiti and Cuba. Because Cuba is the biggest island with more people, we dominate the market.

KLR: Thank you very much, Anselmo Sacasas.

-- Dr. Ken "Leo" Rosa and John Child

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