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The legendary Cuban orchestra leader, arranger, composer, pianist. He's also the father of Chucho Valdés.

Profile: Our Man in Stockholm...Bebo Valdés Rides Again

by Antero Laiho

It might well be that the purest, most genuine sounds of Cuban music come from Stockholm now. Stockholm, Sweden? The late Dr. Vernon Boggs' idea of transculturation process in full action? No. It is because of Bebo. Bebo Valdés, the legendary Cuban orchestra leader, arranger, composer, master class pianist and mambo king is living in Sweden, riding high again after so many years of low profile. Bebo Valdés' glorious career in Latin music has not been documented well enough. Some readers may have seen Max Salazar's nice article about Bebo's doings in the Latin music scene in Latin Beat magazine (vol. 1, no. 2, 1991), but that's about all— except the scarce sleeve notes of the numerous records Bebo has made during his 55 years in music business.

Talking to Bebo Valdés now is like going through a time warp. The legendary Cuban musicians such as Arsenio Rodriguez, Cascarita, Beny Moré , Cachao, Tojo Jimenez, Orestes Lopez, Miguelito Valdés, Pérez Prado, Rolando LaSerie, Rita Montaner, etc. pop up once in a while. Bebo knew them all and played with many of them when he was living in Cuba. In October of 1960, at the top of his career, he moved to Mexico where he had been a big success. In March of 1962 he decided to try other things — first in Los Angeles and then later in Spain where he met the Bruguera brothers from the famous Lecuona Cuban Boys. He became the musical director and main arranger for this orchestra and toured extensively in Europe where Lecuona Cuban Boys was a very big name at the time. He came with the band to Sweden in April 1963, met his future wife Rosemarie, and decided to stay in Scandinavia. "I had it better than ever, no question about that," says Bebo now. "No bitter feelings about leaving my musical past, not a bit. The family was number one in my life from that moment on." It might be said that Bebo went into semi-retirement for over 30 years. That's only half of the truth. He might have vanished from the headlines of the music press, but he kept on playing and composing — but now own his own terms. "When I decided to stay in Sweden it was a big change in my life. I thought if I am not going to make a living by making music, I'm prepared to drive a bus, deliver mail or whatever. Luckily I met some people who were able to give me work in the music business in Sweden."

Few people know what Bebo Valdés was doing musically from 1963 until his two recent public appearances; one in April 1991 at the Bass Clef club in London with Wilfredo Stephenson and the other in 1994 at the Fasching jazz club in Stockholm with his son, Chucho Valdés, leader of the Cuban band Irakere.

"I stayed with Lecuona Cuban Boys for 13 months. There was a lot of travelling and suddenly I decided to put a stop to that. I wanted to stay permanently in Sweden and make a living from my home base. I founded a small group for restaurant gigs, playing ordinary dance music to the Scandinavian audience — no Latin music at all. In 1970-71 I had a chance to play some Latin music on the big boats that travel regularly from Sweden to Finland. After that it came to my mind that I would like to try a solo piano career. My wife said to me, 'All your life you had different bands, it's a good idea to try something else now.' And that's what I did. I played solo piano in the best hotels in Stockholm from 1971 until 1990, when I definitely retired. I was over 70 years old at that time. Through all these years, up to this date, I had not forgotten my roots in Cuban music — not at all. After retiring I still play every day and I never quit composing."

In New York, in 1994, Paquito D'Rivera made a phone call to Götz A. Wörner, owner of the German based record label Messidor and suggested a recording session with Bebo Valdés and some of the best Cuban musicians. Mr. Wörner hardly knew who Bebo was, but trusted D'Rivera's recommendations and arranged the historic session in Ludwigsburg, Germany in November 1994. The result, Bebo Rides Again is a masterpiece of Latin or Latin jazz music. Out of eleven pieces eight are original new titles by Bebo — all with wonderful, rich melodies. The arrangements showcase an absolute mastery of Cuban music by this ten-man band. There is a certain old-fashioned quality in the music that results in a very positive experience. "They don't make records like this any more" is the expression that springs to mind. If you listen to the CD's last tune, the heartbreakingly beautiful solo piano rhapsody "Oleaje," you might get an idea of what kind of music Bebo was playing in his years of "absence"in Stockholm. Then there is Maria Teresa Vera's "Veinte Años" — just Bebo and the Cuban trombonist Juan Pablo Torres. A simple arrangement and two master musicians can create an emotionally shaking experience. A minimalist approach to a Latin standard is also heard on Lecuona's classic "La Comparsa" with Bebo, Irakere's first class guitarist Carlos Emilio Morales and Patato Valdés on bongos. The tunes and arrangements for the little big band, featuring among others D'Rivera (alto, clarinet) and Joe Santiago (bass) are satisfying. "Al Dizzy Gillespie," the opening tune, tells us all about what contemporary Latin jazz should be like.

The sleeve notes indicate that this is Bebo Valdés first recording after 34 years. If you want to be absolutely precise, you should not forget that in 1963 Bebo recorded an LP with the Lecuona Cuban Boys entitled All Night Long: Lecuona Cuban Boys in Sweden. In 1990, Bebo was featured as a piano soloist in Hatuey's (from Sweden) record Songo Mondongo and, in 1992, in Wilfredo Stephenson's Hot Salsa's (again, from Sweden) Ilusiones. Nevertheless, the brand new Messidor CD Bebo Rides Again is the statement that Latin music lovers have been waiting for. This piece of art should bring Bebo Valdés back to the position in Latin music's history that he is entitled to. Strongly recommended.

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