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By Culturekiosque Staff

NEW YORK, 20 SEPTEMBER 2010 — A little over a decade ago when a Culturekiosque editor in Madrid asked the Spanish baroque music specialist Eduardo Lopez Banzo if he had any advice for classical musicians on the performance practice of the complex and constant rhythmic changes in Iberian baroque music, he replied, "They need to spend some time in Cuba!" Thanks to the on-going PBS series, American Masters and the Cuban-American film actor Andy Garcia, North American audiences will grasp the significance of this remark. Scheduled to air across the U.S. as of 20 September 2010 (check local PBS listings), American Masters takes an in-depth look at the Grammy winning bassist Israel "Cachao" López, who died in March 2008.

Entitled Cachao: Uno Más, the documentary is produced and narrated by Andy Garcia, a close friend and ardent fan, who helped reinvigorate Cachao’s career in the 1990s. The spine of his film is a sold-out 2005 concert at Bimbo’s 365 Club, a famous San Francisco nightclub. In addition to Mr. Garcia playing the bongos with Cachao, reminiscing over lunch and smoking cigars, the bilingual production features informative commentary by Gloria and Emilio Estefan, Arturo Sandoval, saxophonist Ray Santos, Cachao’s daughter Elena, his driver, and fellow musicians such as percussionist and historian John Santos.

A maestro of legendary status on the world stage, Cachao is considered one of the greatest Afro-Cuban musicians of all time. The film takes viewers from his start as a child prodigy born in Cuba in 1918 into a family of  classical musicians through his formal conservatory training and seat in the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra for 30 years, performing under the direction of all of the legendary international conductors of the time — beginning at age 10. And although a classical musician by day, the young Cachao always had a double life at night, playing the Havana clubs and dance halls with his brother Orestes. Together they revolutionized the heart of Cuban music — first in the late 1930s, literally inventing the mambo through the infusion of complex, multi-layered African rhythms into the earlier, stylized and class-coded Hispano-Cuban dance genre, the danzón. Later in the 1950s, at highly electric descargas cubanas – Cuban jam sessions – their spontaneous improvisations and innovations laid the groundwork for contemporary Latin jazz and salsa, rock ‘n roll and rhythm and blues. Around this time, Cachao wrote "Chanchullo" which contained the signature hook appropriated in Tito Puente’s classic hit "Oye Como Va," later made popular in Carlos Santana’s hit crossover cover.

Cachao became an exile shortly after Fidel Castro came into power in 1962. He relocated to New York and played with leading Latin bands. As the 1970s wore on, his life hit a sour note in Las Vegas, where he headlined casinos and battled his growing gambling habit. Eventually, he settled in Miami as a forgotten artist, playing for tips at local venues. He slowly slipped into obscurity in the 1980s until Andy Garcia helped revive an appreciation of Cachao and his music and reinvigorated his career in the 1990s. Their musical collaboration culminated in a series of Grammy-winning albums, cementing Cachao’s well-deserved recognition in the industry as a world-class musician and composer.

Israel "Cachao" Lopez and Andy Garcia
American Masters:
Cachao: Uno Mas
Photo: Jakub Mosur
Photo courtesy of PBS

Mr. Garcia's insightful narrative and well-edited performance clips thus enable the viewer to better understand the origins, evolution and sophistication of Afro-Cuban music and dance genres well beyond the often prosaic pop culture notions held by many North Americans as a result of the Miami salsa era and U.S. television dramas of the 1980s. As Mr. Garcia says, "You can put [Cachao] right next to Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, and Charlie Parker. That’s the lexicon of the names that he’s up there with."

In his final years, Cachao received numerous honors including a Hispanic Heritage Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a star on Hollywood Walk of Fame and an induction into the Smithsonian Institute.  In the words of John Santos, "Underlying his consummate professional demeanor, he [was] a sage and poker-faced philosopher…warmth, humor and humility [were] his trademarks."

For those without access to PBS television stations, or who reside outside the United States, American Masters Cachao: Uno Más is currently screening in an online stream at www.pbs.org/americanmasters.

Related Culturekiosque Archives

Kréyol Factory: Rites and Passage

Pablo Menendez : Our Cat in Havana

Book Review: Dancing with Cuba : A Memoir of the Revolution

Portrait: Carlos Maza

Interview: Alicia Alonso and The National Ballet of Cuba

How Santeria Inspires Art in Cuba

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