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May 12, 2008

Master bassist and composer Israel "Cachao" López died in Coral Gables, Florida, on Saturday, March 22, 2008. What follows is Part I of what might be the last and most extensive interview we have of this giant figure in Latin music history. A Descarga.com exclusive...


Conversing with Cachao, Part 1

by Abel Delgado

We have lost yet another legend, one of the towering figures in this music. Israel López Cachao died Saturday, March 22, 2008, in Coral Gables, Florida. He leaves behind a legacy few can touch. Not only was he literally part of the beginnings of modern Cuban dance music, he played a huge role in its ongoing creation. First, he and his brother Orestes López helped modernize the danzón while playing with Arcaño y Sus Maravillas, and then may well have created another genre, the mambo, through the use of syncopated tumbaos which later were adapted by pianist Dámaso Pérez Prado and applied to a jazz band format. Cachao then went on to record his legendary jam sessions with illustrious figures such as Aristedes Soto (Tata Güines), Alejandro “El Negro” Vivar, Guillermo Barreto and Rogelio “Yeyito” Iglesias, among others. After leaving Cuba as an exile in 1962, he joined the band of another legend, Tito Rodríguez, and accompanied a host of other legends, later recording a number of solo descarga albums in the 1970s. The 1980s saw him in relative obscurity, playing with local bands in Miami, until a famous admirer, actor Andy García, directed a documentary about his life, Como su ritmo no hay dos, which also included a special concert in his honor. Cachao continued to record in the 1990s, right up until 2004 with Ahora sí, his last album, consistently producing superb danzones (his passion) and rousing descargas which always were characterized not only by turbocharged playing, but also exquisitely tasteful phrasing. Indeed, his recordings could be considered musical guidebooks for all aspiring bass players and other instrumentalists who play Latin music.

In 2006 I conducted a wide-ranging interview with Cachao (by the way, this is not his nickname, it’s actually the last name of his mother), covering his life and career from the beginnings. What follows is the first part, in which he discusses not only the first band he played in, but also his years with Arcaño and what the mambo actually is, in musical terms. He also offers fascinating insights into lesser-known Afro-Cuban musical subgenres, such as the rhythms played on the yuka and mula drums. Overall, the venerable bassist clearly indicates that he was not only a witness to remarkable developments in Cuban cultural history, he played a role in them. More to come later, covering not only his legendary descarga sessions in the 1950s, but also his career in the United States, with a number of revelations along the way about Latin music history.



Part 1

AD: The first question I had for you was about where you were born. From what I understand, you were born in the home of José Martí*. How did your family end up in José Martí’s house?

[Note: José Martí, who was born in 1853 and died in 1895, was a superb writer involved in directing the Cuban struggle for independence and is considered one of Cuba’s heroes.]

C: At the beginning of the 20th century, Martí’s parents went to live at the Cabaña … in the Morro*. They left the house to be rented. So then my family rented it from a lady who raised Martí. I don’t remember her name. She was a black woman. So she rented the house to my mother for 8 pesos a month. That’s what they paid back then. The house had an upper and lower level. We were a big family, just imagine, my brother, my sister, all of them were born there. My brother was born in 1908, my sister in 1910 and I was born in 1918. Logically, the house was respected in the following way: since it was Martí’s house, every 28th of January** … we had to leave the house so [children from] all the schools could come visit it. At that time it was a very nice thing that was done, flowers were placed around the house and it was something that lasted from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. We had to leave the house empty so all the schools could come. In addition, we had to paint the house every year, because it had to be very presentable for this very reason.

[Notes: *The Morro is a fort built by the Spaniards to defend Havana against pirates. La Cabaña is a part of the Morro. It’s difficult to verify why Martí’s parents went there to live but one source indicates that Martí’s father was stationed in barracks in the Cabaña around the time of Martí’s birth. By 1900, Cuba had, in a manner of speaking, won its independence and perhaps Martí’s parents were offered living quarters at the Cabaña due to their obvious connection with a Cuban hero. **January 28th is the birthday of José Martí.]

AD: So I understand that your first music teacher was your mother.

C: Yes, my mother.

AD: What did she teach you?

C: Solfege and theory. And my father showed me how to play the bass. That’s how it started. And my brother was a bassist just like me, the whole family played bass: my sister, my mother, my father…

AD: At the age of 8 your were playing with a kiddie band called Bellamar and Roberto Faz* was part of the group.

[Note: Roberto Faz, who was born in 1914 and who died in 1966, was a famous Cuban sonero. He made his mark first with the Conjunto Casino and later as a solo artist with a terrific band. Because of his reddish hair, his nickname was “Zanahoria” or “Carrot.”]

AD: What are your memories of that time with Zanahoria, as he was known?

C: Ha ha ha... Well, Roberto was the singer, Drago [was] the maracas player; since we didn’t have a bass, Congrí, a black kid, played the marímbula*. El Chino was the tres player and Juan was the advisor. He showed the process of rehearsing and things like that. This was in Regla, a town that’s very close to Havana, near Guanabacoa. I think that I hadn’t mentioned this to you. En 1919 Martí’s house was declared a national monument and the government asked us to move. And we did. And on that occasion the government gave us 750 pesos, which at that time was a lot of money, to move. [This happened] in 1919, so I only lived there a year. We moved to the town of Guanabacoa, which is near Havana.

AD: Pueblo embrujado**.

[Notes: *The marímbula is an instrument that was used in son groups before the bass. It basically consists of a hollow wooden box with metal keys attached that are plucked. **Because Guanabacoa had and has among its residents many priests and priestesses of Santería, sometimes called “brujos” or “witches,” it is known as “pueblo embrujado,” which (no pun intended) could be translated as “the bewitched town” or maybe even as “Witchville.”]

C: Yes, the town of witches (laughs). Regla is next to Guanabacoa and Havana. So we rehearsed at Roberto Faz’s house. After that the maestro Ignacio Villa* asked me to work with him. That was the silent film era, which is to say, the music was adapted to a film. It was a small band, and we played violins, percussion and bass. So our job in this case was to play more or less the music for the movie**. For instance, if a woman sang, the violin would do the melody. If it was a man, it was an alto sax, you played any old melody. We had to be there early to see how the movies were to prepare the sound effects. If it was a Western, [the drummer] “fired” the shots [by riffing on the drums]. By the way, one time the drummer got drunk because he became nervous. The [cowboy in the movie] had 6 shots and the drummer fired like 90. So people said “Hey, that gun is only a six-shooter, how are you going to fire off so many?” So in that time, from the year I was telling you, from 1926 to 1930, I was there. Then came Vitaphone and movies had their own soundtracks. We stopped that activity and since we had no work, I joined the band of Arsenio González, a kiddie band. I was around 10 or 11 years old at that time. Then when I was 12, I joined the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra.

[Note: Ignacio Villa, better known as Bola de Nieve, was a pianist and singer who worked often with Cuban diva Rita Montaner before becoming a successful solo cabaret act.]

AD: And how did you get to join such a prestigious orchestra at such an early age?


C: Because I had a lot of abilities to be able to join. I was already playing well and so they let me into the orchestra. I was just another member and it was hard because this was very serious music. I was very grateful to my father [for his training] because in music, this type of orchestra is like what the big leagues are for baseball players. At the age of 12 I already had enough knowledge to belong to that orchestra, so I was tested and allowed to join. From that point on I stayed with the orchestra for 30 years.

AD: In other interviews you’ve spoken about how you met a man named Mayumba who lived on a hill and who was supposedly 115 years old. He played the yuka and mula drums. Many people don’t know much about those drums and how they’re used in Cuban folklore. Can you clear this up?

C: Mayumba [was] a Congolese who was 115 years old at that time but was strong. He lived in the Candelaria hills in a small town called Piloto located around 40 miles from Havana. Every year he came down from the hills and played three days straight without stopping.

AD: But why was he playing? Was it for the public?

C: It was for some fiestas patronales (patron saint festivals) that were held at that time. February 2 is the feast of Saint Teresita and so he played in honor of it, dedicating those drums to the Virgin. He played while drinking rum or aguardiente, a bottle of it, but without stopping. That man hardly slept. And he knew the rhythms of the yuka and mula drums because he was from Africa.

AD: According to what’s been explained to me, the mula drum is used in palo ceremonies.

C: Among the paleros, yes.

AD: And the yuka drum is like the conga, used in toques for the saints like in a güiro, which is more popular, not sacred. Is this true?

C: No, no. It’s not sacred. The batá is sacred.

AD: Are the yuka and mula drums sacred for the paleros?

C: Yes, but they don’t have the same importance as the batá drum has [for santeros]. These are for patron saint feasts and things like that. They were very difficult [to play], nobody played them in Cuba. [Their] rhythm was not normal. The rhythm had differences, it wasn’t a beat you could dance to, because every two beats the rhythm changed.

AD: In 1937 you joined “Las Maravillas del Siglo,” which at that time was the group of the singer Fernando Collazo. “Arcaño y Sus Maravillas” was formed when you [the musicians] had an argument with Collazo and left him. What caused the argument?

C: Well, the circumstances were the following. [There was] the influence of the Sonora Matancera [in being] a cooperative. The [Maravillas] musicans liked this. Collazo was the bandleader, as was the style of the time. But then, trying out what the Sonora had done, the band [became] “Primera Maravilla de Arcaño,” a cooperative orchestra.

AD: So you wanted a more equitable arrangement with the money and Collazo wasn’t into that idea.

C: Of course, of course. So we left. We left to form “Primera Maravilla de Arcaño,” which later, over time, became known as “Maravillas de Arcaño”.

AD: Besides danzones, what other kinds of genres did you all play at that time?

C: Exclusively danzones. But let me tell you something that I should also clear up. When the group was formed in 1937, there were still singers. At that time there was Collazo, Álvarez, Alberto Aroche, René Márquez Rojo, there was also Pablo Quevedo, and there’s a special story about him, Alberto Ruiz, René Álvarez ... there were a lot. So in our group the first singer was Oscar López, who died recently, about a year ago in Paris. That was the first singer that the band had. Later, the next singer was Miguelito Cuní.

AD: He was singing danzones at that time?

C: No, no, no. We played boleros and guarachas because the danzón still wasn’t that popular. So when we took over the band, things changed. We got rid of the singer and started playing only [instrumental] danzones, because we created something. We gave the danzón a 180-degree spin. We included syncopation in danzones. People don’t know that. We completely varied the way of playing danzón at the time into something new and it was hard at first, and that’s where the mambo also comes from. We also have to talk about that.

AD: Okay, let’s see if I understand the chronology. You [las Maravillas] split from Collazo but at that time you still had that popular repertoire of boleros, danzonetes, etc. And you had Miguelito Cuní and René Álvarez, who later had his own son group, and at that time they were still singing with Las Maravillas…

C: Yes, of course, later they went out on their own.

AD: In which year was this?

C: Well, that was in 1937. In 1938 is when things changed.

AD: It became all danzones.

C: We started playing all danzones. And there was a time in which everybody did the same thing, nobody had singers. Antonio María Romeu was the only one with singers.

AD: What carried the rhythm at that time?

C: The timbal and the güiro.

AD: Just the timbal, the güiro and the bass.

C: Yes. We really needed the tumbadora later. At that time it wasn’t missed, you could dance well with that type of rhythm.

AD: At that time the guajeo or montuno was being used with the piano.

C: Yes, of course. What happened was that the style that we were using was different. The danzón doesn’t have a montuno. But after we [Cachao and his brother, pianist Orestes López], it did. We did a kind of ... for example, we divided up the danzones: the paseo, the first part, which is the flute’s part, the second is the violin’s part, which is the romantic part of danzón, and then the last part which is where you really dance.

AD: Okay. Well, I want to go back in time for a second. Your brother Orestes López was was one of the innovators of that era, and you have said that in the 1920s he was the first to introduce the trumpet to the son Conjunto or sexteto.

C: Yes. In 1926. The conjunto was called Apolo and was recorded by RCA Victor.

AD: How did he get the idea to use a trumpet and which instrument was being used before the trumpet?

C: Well, before the trumpet it was just a sextet. There was no trumpet.

AD: Didn’t they use a cornet?

C: No, no, none of that. What was used as sort of an experiment was the clarinet. But the clarinet is a very strident instrument. But my brother did play trumpet. My brother was an innovator.

AD: I understand that in your time with Arcaño you and your brother composed some 25 danzones a week. Is this true?

C: Yes, of course.

AD: How did you have time to compose all those danzones?

C: I was very fast. For example, on my days off I worked from 6 a.m. to 4 a.m. the next morning, with only 2 hours to sleep.

AD: Composing the whole day.

C: Composing. But at the time I had the knack for writing many danzones and none sounded alike … Composing is very difficult, what you have to do is take advantage of the burst of inspiration that comes.

AD: But why so many? Was it because you were so inspired?

C: No, it was because we had to supply the group with a repertoire.

AD: But did you need so many that you had to put out 25 a week?

C: Yes, because the problem was that I had this idea of having lots of music so as to not be playing the same thing all the time, to change up, so that people wouldn’t be bored every time they listened to the band and would hear different music. And there were a lot of danzones that came about because of commitments with social clubs, who used to ask for their own particular danzón. There was Centro San Agustín, the first danzon I wrote so the club members could dance to it in Alquizar, a town near Havana. And from there lots of danzones came about that had the names of social clubs. That also accelerated the production because the social club in Santa Clara would want one, the one in Matanzas would want one, the ones in Camagüey and Oriente. You had to make one for everybody. There were hundreds of social clubs. That’s why production sped up and we had the enormous repertoire that we had.

AD: By the 1940s it seems that there was a sort of rivalry between your group, that is, Arcaño y sus Maravillas, and Arsenio Rodríguez’s conjunto. And at the same time, it seems like you influenced each other. I understand that thanks to Arsenio introducing a tumbadora into his group, you guys also incorporated it. Is this true?

C: Yes, the first one to incorporate it, the one who created the concept of the conga drum in a band was Arsenio Rodríguez. First he did it in his band, then Arcaño saw that, he liked it and did it too. From there everyone else’s conjuntos and orchestras incorporated tumbadoras.

AD: Who invented the conga tumbao to accompany danzones when it was incorporated?

C: Well, when the danzón started using congas, it was “El Colorao,” Eliseo Martínez. We called him el “Colorao” because he was a mulato whose hair was practically blonde.

AD: You know, I’ve read that in the 1920s that cajones were what was used in rumba. So how did the tumbadora get popular? Who started using it? Where did it come from?

C: The tumbadora is very old, it’s just that it wasn’t used for that kind of music.

AD: What kind of music was it used for?

C: The tumbadora was used for náñigo music. The abacuá, that’s something else, it’s an Afro-Cuban rhythm. But those kinds of drums were already being used...

AD: Along with the ekué?

C: Yes, of course. The ekué is an instrument that’s used to imitate the lion, because it has a sound that’s like gruar gruar [Cachao does a low-volume lion’s roar]. That’s the ekué. From there comes the tumbadora, which is to help the melodies, those that were very famous, very good by the way, very interesting.

AD: So when did they start using the tumbadora in other genres of Cuban music? Do you remember when it was, more or less? Was it during the 1930s?

C: By 1940.

AD: In 1940?

C: Yes, yes, yes. Those rites were very private, that’s why they weren’t commonly known. For instance, it wasn’t like people said “Hey, I’m bringing a tumbadora to play there,” no. It was sacred, it was something very private. That’s why no one knew that this instrument existed, that it could be used in regular bands.

AD: So with Arsenio, when he introduced this into his conjunto, then the tumbadora started being used in all kinds of Cuban music.

C: In everything, whether it was an orchestra or a jazz band.

AD: What are your memories of Arsenio as a person and as a musician?

C: Arsenio was a person, you know, Arsenio wasn’t blind from birth. Arsenio was blind because when he was 7, a horse kicked him and destroyed his optic nerve. The last thing he saw—according to what Arsenio used to say—was the Caridad del Cobre.

[Note: The Caridad del Cobre is Cuba’s patron saint, often associated with the Yoruba goddess Ochún, and she has a special shrine located in the eastern town of Cuba. To this day, many Cubans—on both sides of the Straits—pray to la Caridad.]
And after he saw that he started losing his sight and became blind. The Mayo brothers wanted to restore his sight in a clinic that’s famous here … but then he didn’t want this. He focused on another religion, he was a Jehovah’s Witness. When he died, he died as a Jehovah’s Witness, not as a santero. That hurt him when he was given medical treatment, since Jehovah’s Witnesses can’t receive blood transfusions.

AD: So you’re saying that at the end of his life, Arsenio abandoned the Regla de Palo and became a Jehovah’s Witness. And why did he do that? Because he was a born palero, he was raised in a family of paleros.

C: No, that has nothing to do with it. There have been many cases of people who have left those religions. Apparently he had some kind of problem with that, because according to Santería he was very negative and that may have caused his death as well. That’s very private, no one knows what happened with this.

[Note: This part is kind of confusing. Arsenio was reportedly a palero. Palo is an animistic religion from the Congo that centers around a special charm called a prenda or a nganga. Paleros supposedly work with the spirits of the dead. Cachao mentions Santería, a different religion based on the beliefs of the Yoruba in Nigeria. It’s difficult to say whether Cachao actually meant Santería above or palo, especially given that Arsenio could well have been a santero as well as a palero, plus also an abacuá. A number of Cubans like that trifecta and are initiated as paleros, santeros and as abacuá, sometimes
becoming Masons as well to top things off.]


AD: I know that you've been asked this a thousand times, but I still don’t understand what the mambo is. Because everything I’ve read about this, including the previous interviews done with you, indicates that it’s a part that you and your brother added to the danzon based on the syncopations that you created with the bass tumbaos. Is right?

C: Here’s what the situation is. What you may have not understood is that the word “mambo,” according to what the congos* told me—I can’t say this is certain because I don’t understand their language—is that mambo means “story.” So a congo would tell a child, “We’re going to tell you a mambo now.” This means that he would tell him a story or song in their language. And the child [after listening to the mambo] would fall asleep. It was a lullaby. And the word “mambo” was applied to that, that rhythm.

[Note: “Congos” would be Congolese. A large number of Congolese were brought to Cuba during the slave trade, and some still survived even when Cachao was a young man, according to him, and conserved their traditions, including music.]

AD: But in musical terms, what does that third part of the danzon consist of?


C: It’s like a tumbao. It’s a tumbao. A tumbao is something that successively is repeated, repeated all the time, as long as the song goes on, you’re “tumbando” [playing a tumbao pattern].

AD: Among the instruments in the group, who exactly is “tumbando”?

C: Among the instruments, the violin is tumbando, the tumbadora. And the flute is singing. Or the singer.

AD: So you created something of a base with a kind of montuno and over the bass went the flute solo?

C: Of course, that’s right. I was creating the syncopations and the solo was being done at the same time. And the choruses were also being sung as well. All of that is brought together, it’s a compendium. There’s a chorus sung, there’s a guía [an improvised phrase from a singer], the rhythm, all of that is is related and forms what is called a tumbao. And so the word “mambo,” as I told you earlier, Pérez Prado himself didn’t know it but heard someone say it, because when we wanted to say play a mambo we said “tumba”... Mambea mambea, mambo, mambo, the word came from that but it’s not a word that came from it. It was added. But that’s something people don’t understand, because it’s a word that was used to identify that kind of playing.

AD: And this was a part of the danzón that was played towards the end after the paseo?

C: The last part, the last part.

AD: What does that have to do with what Pérez Prado did?

C: That also has an explanation. People need to have this cleared up because it’s very important. When we did this, we did it with a very fast tempo. But people couldn’t dance to this, because in that era romanticism was important. People danced very slowly and suddenly this came out and no one knew how to dance it because it was too fast. So people didn’t like it. [We thought] “Let’s slow down the tempo, let’s create a mambo-danzón.” And so the people did dance to that. In 1946 Pérez Prado came out with that type of rhythm at a very fast tempo and with another kind of orchestra.
Because Pérez Prado’s band was not an orquesta típica*, it was a jazz orchestra. The band had trumpets, saxophones, more stridency, so they did play it at a fast tempo, because it was the postwar era. We had just come out of World War II and everybody was buoyant, everyone wanted fast things. And from there the mambo was born.
It must be recognized that Dámaso was who made the mambo go worldwide and we as the creators are very grateful to him for that, because if it wasn’t for Dámaso Pérez Prado the mambo would not be known throughout the world.

[Note: An orquesta típica, sometimes called a charanga band, consists of a string section, usually violins, a five key wooden flute and percussion. Arcaño y Sus Maravillas was an orquesta típica, as were Orquesta Aragón, Sensación and América. This band format originated in Cuba at the turn of the century, indicate some musicologists. Pérez Prado combined percussion with brass—a format closer to the typical salsa band sound we see today—as did his contemporaries in both Cuba and the United States, such as Machito.]

AD: Let me see if I understand this. You and your brother added a part to the danzon in which you were playing tumbaos. That is, the bass played a tumbao and the rest of the group played a tumbao that repeated, but I don’t get how that translated into what Pérez Prado did with his orchestration. Can you clear this up for me?

C: Completely, the word is what leads to that conclusion. It’s not the rhythm, it’s the word. He created a type of mambo his way, but it was not our way. When he hadn’t thought of doing it, we did it. That’s where the confusion lies.

AD: But the musical concept that he had, in other words, what he was executing with brass, tumbadora, timbal, was that what you were doing with Arcaño?

C: No.

AD: Then it’s something different, he took solely the name. So in musical terms there isn’t a relation between what you did with Arcaño and what he was doing...

C: The syncopation remained. He took the syncopation for his mambo, but that syncopation was ours.

AD: So where was the syncopation used? In which instruments was the syncopation used?

C: In everything, it’s that compendium I was telling you about: the timbales, the tumbadora, the violins, the flute, each one has its mission. The flute sang, before that the rest of the bands sang using choruses. “Mambo, mambo, mambo...” [He sings “Mambo,” a danzón-mambo that Cachao and his brother composed during the 1930s]. I think you’ve heard that before, right?

AD: Of course, that’s on one of your records.

C: That’s it. That was the creation, nothing else. And so naturally everyone was surprised because no one expected this, the danzón was very simple, it was completely simple, it was something you danced even if you couldn’t dance very well, because it was just a simple movement, nothing more.
You didn’t separate from your partner, none of that existed. That came later because people wanted to do filigrams in the order they wanted. But to dance correctly, you’d dance by following the rhythm, because dancers need to dance to baqueteo (rhythmic figure] played by the timbalero. When we started [playing mambo] there was a tumbadora being used and you couldn’t dance that way any more, you had to move differently.

AD: So what Pérez Prado did was apply the syncopation that you used in just a part of the danzón to the entire band and to the entire song from beginning to end.

C: Yes, of course, the song would have more impact in the last section because everyone wanted to dance and move.

AD: And that part he did during the entire song in his mambos.

C: Of course, what he used was the fast tempo. By the way, most of Pérez Prado’s songs were played at a breakneck tempo.

AD: Oh. I still find it strange as a listener because I have noticed that the majority of Cuban music genres, that is, the rhythms in and of themselves, have their own respective rhythmic patterns. The guaguancó has its own pattern, for example.

C: That’s something else…

AD: As does the chachachá and other rhythms. But what they call mambo in many records I hear as a guaracha played at a fast tempo. So I don’t know what distinguishes this genre [of mambo] for it to be its own rhythm.

C: It’s precisely the speed that confuses you. You hear a guaracha but a guaracha can never ever be slow. If it’s played at a slow tempo, it’s not a guaracha, it’s a bolero, it’s a son. That’s the difference with that. And that happened to the mambo, too. It was created that way, but people were surprised because they didn’t expect that. They wanted to keep on dancing the traditional danzón.

AD: But isn’t the tumbao played by the conga drummer in a mambo the same as the tumbao played for a guaracha, more or less?

C: Yes, it’s possible that they have added that as well. Because we played the tumbao first. When they did it, it was an imitation of what we did, because the tumbao already came with the song. If you don’t play it as it’s played in the danzón you can’t play the mambo. It’s lost, it ends up in the air if you don’t play the tumbao.

AD: And did you play at some point with Pérez Prado?

C: Of course, we were good friends. People had the wrong idea, they thought we were rivals. Those are two different things. When he toured throughout various countries, in Europe and Asia, he returned to Europe, to Madrid. There, his bass player got sick and he said, “Now what do I do? There’s no one here that I can use.” And someone told him, “Well, the only one here right now is Cachao.” He called me immediately. “Hey, what’s up man?” And I told him, “Well, what?” He told me, “Look, I need you.” “Fine, let’s go,” I told him. And we spent two weeks playing at Radio Madrid’s station ... That was in 1962.

AD: And when you played bass in Pérez Prado’s orchestra, were the bass tumbaos you were playing the same as those you played with Arcaño? Or were they different?

C: Well, the mambo tumbaos were the original ones, they had nothing to do with anyone, they were completely original. They weren’t cut from the danzón nor from future rhythms. No. It was a rhythm created by us. So when Pérez Prado came along, he used one of our tumbaos. The mambo had different tumbao changes. The bass helped make the phrase with another tumbao, and made that variation within the mambo. But then Pérez Prado’s mambo was steadier, because it didn’t have the same variation. It was sing and sing and sing. He separated it completely from what we did, because if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have understood it. You still don’t understand. [he laughs}

AD: No, it’s that for me, since I’m not a musician, it’s hard for me to understand. It seems like you had the idea for it and applied it in one genre and he took that idea and...

C: Created his style.

AD: But he was playing it more like a guaracha, but with the concept that you had to use the tumbao and the syncopation.

C: Of course, that’s the idea.

AD: In other words, [the mambo] is really just a way to play a guaracha. It’s not really a separate genre of Cuban music, right?

C: Of course, of course.

AD: [The mambo] is a style of playing a guaracha or something like that, a way of orchestration or musical focus.

C: It’s not a guaracha because it’s already fast, but it’s not as fast as originally created because people didn’t dance to it. When this guy does this, then the mambo is created. The mambo didn’t have a dance.

AD: And it doesn’t have verse, right? Mambo songs don’t have verses as does the guaracha? That’s another thing that distinguishes it, right?

C: No, no, no. It’s something else. It’s more rhythmic and not sung.

AD: Instrumental.

C: Of course, instrumental and rhythmic. For example, you have to sing a guaracha so you can identify it because if not, someone will stand up and say “Well, what’s this? Is this an uptempo bolero or what?” Because there are no lyrics, none [in the mambo].

AD: It’s brass, nothing more.

C: It’s instrumental, whether it’s strings or brass.

AD: And with more of a jazz bent, right? Because mambo voicings weren’t traditional. They weren’t criollo.

C: Yes, yes they could be, but what happened was that later they varied them up. The orchestras took advantage of the American influence to inflect jazz ideas that went with traditional music. It was something totally different.

AD: That’s interesting because I have a ton of records at home with songs that are labeled as “mambos.” For instance, there’s a Machito song from the 1960s called “El guardia con el tolete” that is called a “mambo.” But it has verses and a chorus yet it’s called a “mambo.” But I think they gave it that name because they felt like it and that it was really a guaracha. So in that regard I also think there was a lot of confusion because the record companies labeled the songs incorrectly.

C: Of course, they did what they wanted.

AD: Exactly. So the true mambo is an up tempo song, like a kind of guaracha, with syncopation and a very fast tempo that doesn’t have lyrics, it’s not to be sung but played as an instrumental.

C: Of course, of course.

AD: That is a very important clarification, maestro, thanks very much. Well, I had another question about Arsenio. As I understand it, Arsenio was the first to introduce what is called mambo in the sense in which it’s used today. That is, you know that there are salsa songs that have a verses section, then the montuno with the chorus and the guías from the singer, and then comes the part where the brass plays, because in salsa they use a lot of brass. And they call that the mambo. I wanted to talk about that, because supposedly Arsenio was the first to introduce this and he called that part of the song the “diablo.”

C: Diablo, diablo and they would do this: prrruuuu prrrrruuuu, a type of warbling.

AD: How was it at that time? Because the mambos of today, for example, in modern orchestras...

C: They called it the chiva [female goat].

AD: What do you mean chiva?

C: Yes, because it was the same sound that goats make, beeeee beeee. That’s what the trumpet would do.

AD: At the time in which Arsenio introduced that? So he was the first to introduce that.

C: Of course.

AD: And today the mambos in salsa songs, for example, have…

C: No, that’s something else. That varied over time.

AD: Yes, well, that’s what I wanted to asked you because [modern mambos] have two lines. For instance, trombones play one thing and then on top come the trumpets playing something else. Had Arsenio developed things to that point? Did he have that element in his songs?

C: Yes, he also had that. He was truly ahead of his time. He was 100 years ahead of his time.

AD: In which song did he introduce this? Do you remember which song it was?


C: Ah, in many. The very “Bruca maniguá.” Miguelito [Valdés] sang that, but that’s old. That’s from the 1940s*.

[NOTE: Bruca maniguá was actually recorded in 1937 by Miguelito Valdés and Orquesta Casino de la Playa.]

AD: And the diablo in and of itself has nothing to do with what you and your brother Orestes were doing.

C: No, no.

AD: So the diablo is that part of the son that Arsenio invented and what is known as the mambo today.

C: That’s right.

AD: Before the trumpets did not have that section, right? It was real simple.

C: No no. Just one trumpet. Then two, three were added. And [Arsenio] ended up having up to 4 trumpets in his group.

AD: As I understand it, Arsenio was very succesful in Cuba with his group and he came here and was not as successful.

C: He was marginalized in the United States, I don’t know why. I couldn’t understand it. Arsenio’s music was very good, very well done, very complicated. It looks like people didn’t understand it ... Still, after he died everyone played Arsenio’s music.

AD: Well, I read that Mario Bauzá commented once that he spoke with Arsenio and said, “Look my friend, you’re playing too slowly, you have to play at a faster tempo. Because the way you play, only black Cubans know how to dance it and here people won’t get it or be able to dance to it.” Do you think that Arsenio’s style influenced in that people didn’t know how to dance to it?

C: The dancers didn’t marginalize him, the impresarios did.

AD: So you think the opposite, that people here really could get his rhythm and dance to his music.

C: They could accept it, of course. But it was never played. It’s like the case of payola; if you hear songs being played on the radio, that’s been paid for. If not, they aren’t played .... So people say, “He must be a good singer because they play his songs every once in a while.” But do you know why they play his songs? Because it was paid for. So if you give your record to a radio person, they can’t play it. ... He [Arsenio] didn’t like that system, because of pride or whatever. Beg, bring a record and say, “Play this for me.” He didn’t like that.

AD: On the other hand, it looks like the circumstances were the exact opposite for Pérez Prado. It seems to me that he didn’t have much success in Cuba but when he went to Mexico and the United States, he was extremely successful.

C: It was in Mexico, not in Cuba. He had to leave Cuba because in Cuba nothing was happening for him.

AD: He wasn’t, then, a prophet in his own land.

C: No, no, no way. Almost no one. The only one you can say was a prophet in her own land was Olga Guillot. She sure was.

AD: And why was Pérez Prado not successful in Cuba?

C: Cuba was a country that didn’t care about those things [referring to Pérez Prado’s music]. It wasn’t into that thing. So he went to Mexico and Mexico did open its doors to him.

AD: So you’re saying that Pérez Prado’s music was too ahead of its time for Cuba. That Cubans didn’t want to dance to it.

C: Of course, of course. Because they didn’t understand those things. Mexicans accepted it better.


End of Part 1
Stay tuned for Part 2...


Continue to our comprehensive obituary and discographic profile of Cachao here.



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