Cachao’s Legacy: Two Nations Under a Groove


Although Cuban bass virtuoso Israel “Cachao” Lopez took his final breaths this week, it’s hard to imagine this humble giant, who played in more than 250 groups from the 1920s on, as not having a pulse. Cachao would have been legendary even if he had retired around 1940. As a member of Arcaño y Sus Maravillas in the late 1930s, Cachao and his multi-instrumentalist brother Orestes “Macho” Lopez reworked the rarefied French-influenced parlor music of the danzón into the mambo. But by the 1950s, when Perez Prado and many others (from Rosemary Clooney to Bill Haley) rode the mambo to international fame, Cachao had moved on to perfect the descarga, the “jam session” format that provided breathing room for serious instrumental improvisation. More than a rhythm master, Cachao united melody and harmony into an irresistible connecting thread—what George Clinton would later call a “groove.”

Because Cachao was a Cuban expatriate who spent his postwar years in places ranging from Madrid to Miami, it would be easy to give his career the Buena Vista Social Club treatment, viewing him as a nostalgic relic of Cuba’s romantic past. But that would understate his legacy. One of Cachao’s few peers, pianist Bebo Valdes, has noted that before Cachao, Cuban music had counter-tempo, but still lacked real syncopation. Cachao, who spent decades in the Havana Symphony performing with conductors ranging from Ernesto Lecuona to Igor Stravinsky, elevated the seriousness of the bass even as he made it dance, swing and shimmer.

Some of Cachao’s obituaries quote from a hero of mine—musicologist and “cowboy rumba” innovator Ned Sublette–whose astonishingly good book Cuba and its Music describes Cachao as “arguably the most important bassist in twentieth century popular music.” While this may beg the question of whether Charles Mingus was “popular,” Sublette has a point. As he notes, “with Cachao, the modern bass feel of Cuban music begins. And with that begins the bass feel of the second half of the twentieth century in U.S. music as well—those funky ostinatos that we know from later decades of R&B, which have become such a part of the environment that we don’t even think about where they came from.”

cachaodescargas.jpgCachao’s 1942 song “Rareza de Melitón” thrillingly traced in Sublette’s book, hints at his far-ranging influence. In 1957, Arcaño reworked the same rhythm and renamed it “Chanchullo.” Five years later, Tito Puente used the same groove in his “Oye como va.” Santana’s 1970 cover of “Oye como va” drew on Cachao’s tumbao to provide the signature riff of his career and a cornerstone for rock and salsa. Cachao bears no apparent responsibility for the mediocre duets that Santana later recorded with American pop stars. But another Sublette essay, “The Kingsmen and the Cha-cha-cha,” makes a persuasive case that Cuban music has had a more enduring influence in rock and funk than you’d expect, showing up in everything from the mambo back beats in rock and roll to the timbale riffs in Funkadelic’s “One Nation under a Groove.” In effect, Cachao’s innovations provided a groove for two nations.

Cachao’s late-breaking recognition in the United States came about largely through the efforts of Bay Area percussionist John Santos, who brought him stateside for two well-received concerts, and actor Andy Garcia, who went on to produce albums for Cachao, as well as the 1994 concert documentary Cachao…Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos (Like His Rhythm There is No Other). A forthcoming documentary, Cachao: Una Mas, is scheduled for its premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival this April. For those new to Cachao’s recorded output, the mid-nineties classic Master Sessions Vol. 1, captures a career-spanning range of styles. Two reissues worth seeking out are Arcaño y Sus Maravillas’ Danzon Mambo 1947-1951, and Cachao’s 1957 masterpiece Descargas En Miniature. Bass Player magazine described the latter as “the Cuban music bible for anyone playing or studying this music.” Another very good anthology, last year’s Cachao Descargas: The Havana Sessions, offers a comprehensive retrospective of the master’s descargas recorded between 1957 and 1961. If these don’t give you a pulse, seek medical help immediately.

Cachao and Paquito D’Rivera, “Al Fin Te Vi”

Cachao and Bebo Valdes, “Lagrimas Negras”

About Roger Moore

rocklobster3.JPGRoger Moore is a writer and musical obsessive who plays percussion instruments from around the world with an equal lack of dexterity. An environmental lawyer in his unplugged moments, he has written on subjects ranging from sustainable development practices to human rights and voting rights, as well as many music reviews. A native Chicagoan, Roger lives in Oakland, California with his wife Paula, who shares his Paul Weller fixation, and two young children, Amelia and Matthew, who enjoy dancing in circles to his Serge Gainsbourg records and falling asleep to his John Coltrane records.

Roger Moore’s Musical Timeline

1966. Dropped upside down on patio after oldest sister listened to “She Loves You” on the Beatles’ Saturday cartoon show. Ears have rung with the words “yeah, yeah, yeah” ever since.

1973. Memorized all 932 verses to Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

1975. Unsuccessfully lobbied to have “Louie Louie” named the official song of his grade school class. The teacher altered the lyrics of the winner, the Carpenters’ “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” so that they referred to Jesus.

1977. After a trip to New Orleans, frequently broke drumheads attempting to mimic the style of the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste.

1979. In order to see Muddy Waters perform in Chicago, borrowed the birth certificate of a 27 year-old truck driver named Rocco.

1982. Published first music review, a glowing account of the Jam’s three-encore performance for the Chicago Reader. Reading the original, unedited piece would have taken longer than the concert itself.

1982. Spat on just before seeing the Who on the first of their 23 farewell tours, after giving applause to the previous band, the Clash.

1984. Mom: “This sounds perky. What’s it called?” Roger: “ It’s ‘That’s When I Reach for My Revolver’ by Mission of Burma.”

1985. Wrote first review of an African recording, King Sunny Ade’s Synchro System. A reader induced to buy the album by this review wrote a letter to the editor, noting that “anyone wishing a copy of this record, played only once” should contact him.

1985. At a Replacements show in Boston, helped redirect a bewildered Bob Stinson to the stage, which Bob had temporarily confused with the ladies’ bathroom.

1986. Walked forty blocks through a near-hurricane wearing a garbage bag because the Feelies were playing a show at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club.

1987. Foolishly asked Alex Chilton why he had just performed “Volare.” Answer: “Because I can.”

1988. Moved to Northern California and, at a large outdoor reggae festival, discovered what Bob Marley songs sound like when sung by naked hippies.

1991. Attempted to explain to Flavor-Flav of Public Enemy that the clock hanging from his neck was at least two hours fast.

1992. Under the pseudonym Dr. Smudge, produced and performed for the Underwear of the Gods anthology, recorded live at the North Oakland Rest Home for the Bewildered. Local earplug sales skyrocketed.

1993. Attended first-ever fashion show in Chicago because Liz Phair was the opening act. Declined the complimentary bottles of cologne and moisturizer.

1997. Almost missed appointment with eventual wedding band because Sleater-Kinney performed earlier at Berkeley’s 924 Gilman Street. Recovered hearing days later.

1997. After sharing a romantic evening with Paula listening to Caetano Veloso at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium, purchased a Portuguese phrasebook that remains unread.

1998. Learned why you do not yell “Free Bird” at Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams in a crowded theater.

1999. During an intense bout of flu, made guttural noises bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Throat Singers of Tuva.

2000. Compiled a retrospective of music in the nineties as a fellow at the Coolwater Center for Strategic Studies and Barbecue Hut.

2001. Listened as Kahil El’Zabar, in the middle of a harrowing and funny duet show with Billy Bang, lowered his voice and spoke of the need to think of the children, whom he was concerned might grow up “unhip.”

2002. During a performance of Wilco’s “Ashes of American Flags,” barely dodged ashes of Jeff Tweedy’s cigarette.

2002. Arrived at the Alta Bates maternity ward in Berkeley with a world trance anthology specially designed to soothe Paula during Amelia’s birth, filled with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, and assorted other Khans. The project proved to be irrelevant to the actual process of labor.

2003. Emceed a memorable memorial concert for our friend Matthew Sperry at San Francisco’s Victoria Theater featuring a lineup of his former collaborators, including improvised music all-stars Orchesperry, Pauline Oliveros, Red Hot Tchotchkes, the cast of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Tom Waits.

2003. Failed to persuade Ted Leo to seek the Democratic nomination for President.

2005. Prevented two-year old daughter Amelia from diving off the balcony during a performance of Pierre Dorge’s New Jungle Orchestra at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.

2006. On a family camping trip in the Sierra Nevadas, experienced the advanced stage of psychosis that comes from listening to the thirtieth rendition of Raffi’s “Bananaphone” on the same road trip.