Essential Cachao Recordings: Part 1, Cachao In Cuba

by chip on March 25, 2008

Cachao firmly believed in the importance of history and tradition. He was not a conservative musician – he innovated at several points during his career, taking experimental turns at Cuban music performance. His new directions were always based on his roots though; he valued the history behind his music, and he always respected it. He studied traditional Afro-Cuban music, classical music, and jazz, so an educated foundation always supported his excursions. He encouraged young musicians to follow this model – understand your history before you experiment.

Cachao’s career represents a necessary historical study, but the mass of his work presents an overwhelming amount of music. He spearheaded several changes in Cuban music, revolutionized Latin bass playing, and just created years of quality music. Figuring out how he accomplished this and then seeing it in historical perspective is a major task. In the long run, it’s a job worth doing, and it reveals a good deal about the history of Cuban music. As Cachao would have recognized, his background is a necessary starting point for musicians looking to move the music ahead.

I’ve decided to approach Cachao’s history through a series of recordings. I’ve broken the albums into significant time periods in Cachao’s life. Each album represents an important change in history or an example of a different musical approach. I’ve tried to choose accessible albums that a curious reader could actually find. I am excluding some albums that contain fantastic Cachao performances – I’m doing this to create a historical flow. If you find some of your favorites missing, leave a comment and tell us about it! The more perspectives that guide this discussion, the better.

Cachao In Cuba
Cachao performed a great deal of music during his time as a professional musician in Cuba. He performed for almost 30 years with the Havana Philharmonic, he toured throughout the island with Antonio Arcaño, he led his own groups, and he undoubtedly worked as a freelance bassist. He was an educated musician and a good mannered person with a supportive personality – both important traits of a highly successful artist. A large part of Cachao’s family worked as musicians, so he had countless close employment connections. From the 1930s up until his departure in 1962, he was most likely a regular figure on the Havana music scene.

One would think that Cachao’s work would be documented extensively on record, but in reality, his pre-defection recordings can be difficult to find. The classics can be easily ordered, and in many cases today, downloaded, but a major hole exists in this piece of his discography. The Havana Philharmonic must have recorded with Cachao as the principle bassist, but there are not any traces of a recording. Outside of his work with Antonio Arcaño, very few examples of Cachao as a sideman, although he was likely a favorite among many bands. Politics have played a part in the lack of recordings; many Cuban recordings escape us stateside due to the U.S. embargo. At the same time, most of Cachao’s work was pre-Castro, and a possibility exists that it has been lost. Some people claim that the Castro government “re-credited” many of his recordings after he left the country as retribution. A lot of these ideas run on assumption, and hopefully someday we’ll get some answers.

For now, we fortunately have some outstanding examples of Cachao’s playing while in Cuba . . .

Danzon Mambo 1944-1951, Arcaño y sus Maravillas
Flautist Antonio Arcaño formed his group Arcaño y sus Maravillas in 1937 with Cachao and Orestes Lopez forming the foundation. The group became quite popular, performing across the island. Cachao split his time between the Philharmonic and Arcaño’s group, keeping a foot in both the classical and dance worlds. He and his brother served as the primary composers for the group, and over the course of their tenure, they wrote thousands of danzones.

In 1944, Arcaño y sus Maravillas began a regular gig as a radio orchestra for the Mil Diez radio station in Havana. The steady work and higher profile performance allowed Arcaño to hire a larger ensemble that included a big violin section, cellos, and congas. This opportunity also ensured the popularity of Arcaño’s group, since people across the island heard the station and the group on a regular basis.

Danzon Mambo 1944-1951 brings together several recordings from this time period. Many of them were done as part of a radio broadcast, while some were off-air recordings. All of them include Cachao’s bass playing; he utilizes a delicate bowed approach behind the danzones and applies his assertive percussive touch to the mambo sections. Many of the compositions were created by Cachao, his brother, or a combination of the two musicians.

Most importantly, Danzon Mambo 1944-1951 contains Arcaño y sus Maravillas performing Cachao’s composition “Mambo.” This piece altogether skipped the danzón and jumped right to the up-beat mambo section. This song signaled the rise of the mambo as a song form – one that would become hugely influential in Latin music. Perez Prado popularized it around the world, and Tito Puente added a jazz flare to it, but Cachao invented the Mambo during his time with Antonio Arcaño’s group. Danzon Mambo 1944-1951 serves as an important record of that time.

Cuban Jam Session, Vol. 2
In the 1950s, American citizens flooded Havana’s tourist industry with business, looking for fun and relaxation. This situation proved lucrative for Cuban musicians who could find regular work entertaining tourists in hotels, nightclubs, and beyond. Big bands, dance bands, son groups, and more all thrived in Havana, keeping the good times rolling for the tourists. While these bands all performed at a professional level, they presented a commercialized version of their art forms. Tourists came to Cuba searching for distraction and fun, not innovative music, so the more experimental musicians faced restrictions.

Cachao ranked high among a group of musicians hoping to indulge their improvisatory impulses. Inspired by the freedom that they heard in small group jazz on radio and recordings, they wanted to integrate that freedom into their repertoire. These musicians generally maintained busy schedules, but they found time after their gigs to hold late night descargas. Anything served as potential musical material for improvisation; these musicians would explore jazz standards, one chord vamps, traditional songs and more. In most cases, these musicians combined their interest in improvisation with their love for Cuban rhythmic forms, playing over son, rumba, and cha cha cha. These sessions kept the musicians fresh and inspired, exploring their latest interests.

Wanting to expand the reach of their ideas, Cachao and his peers sought to record their descargas. They went to Havana’s Panart Records, only to find that the company didn’t share their enthusiasm. Loosely structured descargas didn’t hold much commercial potential, and Panart didn’t see any potential profits. Unaffected in their beliefs, Cachao and his musicians persistently pursued a recording with Panart. The record company eventually agreed to the recording, under specific conditions. The musicians needed to record around Panart’s more commercial sessions, late at night. The musicians quickly agreed, and began their planning.

Cuban Jam Session, Vol. 2 contains the descarga directed by Cachao, and the results remain fresh fifty years later. All the songs revolve around simple harmonic structures, and unique bass lines anchor many of them. The musicians perform with virtuosity and enthusiasm; they obviously relish each moment and they play at their highest level. The spontaneity inspires a lively mood throughout the session – most of these recordings evolve in the moment, adding a sense of excitement. The classic track “Descarga Cubana” became Cachao’s anthem, recorded often by Cachao and countless others in their tributes to him. The bass line defines the song and Cachao’s solo has become a necessary study for modern bassists. The album represented a step towards a thriving jazz scene in Cuba, and influenced generations of Latin Jazz musicians around the world.

LJC revisited all three Cuban Jam Session albums a while ago, check it out HERE

Jam Session With Feeling, Cachao Y Su Orquesta
The application of jazz improvisation to Cuban rhythms grew in popularity after the descarga musicians recorded their work. The albums met moderate success and more Cuban performance venues began to recognize small group jazz. Cachao and his musicians continued their after-hours descargas and their enthusiasm built with each session. Dizzy Gillespie and the Machito band had been creating cutting edge Latin Jazz for years in New York and the influence had reached Cuba. Cuban record companies were ready to record more descargas, and Cachao happily accommodated them.

Jam Session With Feeling brings many of the same aesthetics into a more structured format. Improvisation remains a priority throughout the album, and the soloists work from Cuban rhythmic structures. Song forms replace one or two chord jam sessions, implying a more formal setting. Cachao’s group interprets standards such as “Siboney,” El Manicero,” and “Juan Pescao,” finding room for extensive improvisation. The Lopez brothers contribute original compositions that provide a more open structure; “El Niño Toca El Tres,” “Descarga General,” and “Redencion” all maintain an exciting edge. In many ways, Jam Session With Feeling represents the next step in the descarga’s evolution finding a balance between arrangements and collective improvisation.

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Check Out More About Cachao’s Legendary Career:
Essential Cachao Recordings, Part 2: Cachao In New York
Essential Cachao Recordings, Part 3: Cachao’s Early Miami Years
Essential Cachao Recordings, Part 4: Cachao’s Revitalized Career

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