b. 14 September 1918, Havana, Cuba, d. 22 March 2008, Coral Gables, Florida, USA. The name of revered bass player Cachao (who also arranged, composed and played piano, tres, bongo, trumpet and trombone) was linked with the origins of mambo and was virtually synonymous with descarga, which was defined by pianist/band leader Charlie Palmieri as having ‘... no music written. It’s a soloists freedom of expression, ad-libs, an improvisation of the melody... whatever he (she) feels at the moment...’ (quoted by Latin music historian Max Salazar). Leading Cuban band leader of the 50s, Bebo Valdés said in 1991: ‘... if Cachao and Arsenio Rodríguez had not been born, the Cuban music of the 50s and perhaps the last 30 years, would have sounded like the music of the 30s’.
López was born to a musical family and started learning guitar when he was six years of age. When he was about eight he played guitar and bongo with Conjunto Miguel De Seste. This was followed by a stint with Ignacio Villa (who later became popular as Bola De Nieve), whose band provided the music for silent films at a movie house in Guanabacoa, Havana. In 1931, he joined the Havana Symphonic Orchestra and remained a member for over 30 years. Meanwhile, López performed with the dance band of violinist Marcelino González, turning out exciting bass solos that earned him the nickname ‘Cachao’ (derived from ‘cachandeo’, meaning ‘lively with joy’). Between 1934 and 1936 he worked with Ernesto Muñoz, Antonio Maria Cruz and Orquesta Antillana.
In 1937, López joined La Maravilla Del Siglo, a flute, strings and rhythm section band led by singer Fernando Collazo. The following year, the musicians mutinied after a row with Collazo and formed themselves into a co-operative directed by Antonio Arcaño Betancourt, which became known as Arcaño Y Sus Maravillas. Besides Cachao and Arcaño, membership of the band included Cachao’s brother Orestes López (b. 29 August 1908, Havana, Cuba; cello, bass, piano), Enrique Jorrín (b. 1926, Cuba, d. 1988, Cuba; violin; he later joined Orquesta América, developed the cha cha chá rhythm and became a band leader in his own right), Félix Reina (violin; he went on to work with Orquesta América, José Fajardo and lead Estrellas Cubanas), Elizardo Aroche (violin), Jesús López (piano), Ulpiano Díaz (timbales), and Oscar Pelegrin (güiro). The band, along with other flute and strings outfits of the era, specialized in performing the Cuban ballroom dance form called the danzón, which was descended from the seventeenth and eighteenth-century French contradanza.
Amid the ongoing controversy about the creation of the mambo, Orestes López’s 1938 danzón composition called ‘Mambo’, which had its debut performance on the radio station Mil Diez, has been cited as one of the earliest examples of the rhythm. In a 1979 interview with Erena Hernández, Orestes said: ‘... I must give Arcaño credit in the development of my mambo. When I played it for him, he blew flute montunos (improvisations) I had never heard before. His floreos (ad-libs) are what enhanced my mambo’. In addition to Orestes and Arcaño, two leading contenders for the title of likely inventor of the mambo are regarded to be Pérez Prado and Arsenio Rodríguez. Cachao stated his position in the debate to Max Salazar: ‘Prado’s mambo is different to my brother’s mambo... he’s deserved all the fame and wealth with his new sound... we Cubans are proud of him... Arcaño y sus Maravillas were the first to play the mambo... we played it before Arsenio’s diablo (his initial name for the rhythm) and we did it over the radio.’
The new danzón-mambo sound took a while to gain acceptance. Inspired by Arsenio, who was the first band leader to incorporate the conga into a trumpet-led conjunto (group/band), Arcaño added the conga of Eliseo El Colorao to his line-up in 1939. By 1943, Arcaño’s band rivalled Arsenio as the top orchestra in Cuba. However, working with a popular dance band eventually took its toll on Cachao. ‘In 1943, I couldn’t take the pressure of arranging music, playing every day, and being on the move all day long. I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown’ (quote from ‘El Gran Cachao’, 1991). After a break in Miami, he returned to the arduous routine. In 1948, Cachao suffered a further stress-related bout of depression and despite another respite, which included a period in New York and a stint with an American ice follies orchestra back in Cuba, he eventually quit Arcaño’s band on amicable terms in 1949. Stints with Mariano Mercerón and José Fajardo followed; with the latter he played at New York’s famed Palladium Ballroom in 1954.
The earliest pieces that could be described as Latin jam or descarga (which literally means ‘discharge’) were recorded in New York in the 40s. It is currently believed that the first descarga to be recorded in Cuba was probably ‘Con Coco Poco’ in 1952 by Bebo Valdés and members of the Tropicana nightclub orchestra, performing under the name of the Andres All Stars. The number was later included on the 10-inch album Cubano released on the Panart label. In 1956, Panart used the bait of a well-advertised ‘party’ to attract some of Cuba’s leading musicians to a jam session for which they received a nominal payment. The participants were told that the recording being made was for private use but shortly afterwards Panart released Cuban Jam Session, Vol. 1. The album was a huge success and was closely followed by volume two. Popular musician Julio Gutiérrez was credited as the director on both volumes. However, the extent of his involvement later became the subject of speculation. Panart continued withCuban Jam Session, Vol. 3 directed by Niño Rivera. In 1957, Cachao organized a group to record Cuban Jam Sessions In Miniature: “Descargas” for Panart. The album, which sold well over a million copies, achieved the status of a classic and acted as the launch-pad for Cachao’s widespread acclaim. He followed up with further descarga releases: Jam Sessions With Feeling on the Maype label and Cuban Music In Jam Session on the Bonita label. The final volume in the Panart Cuban Jam Session series was provided by José Fajardo And His All-Stars.
In the late 50s, Cachao reassembled the disbanded members of Arcaño Y Sus Maravillas for two albums of danzones on the Kubaney label. Cachao performed with Chico O’Farill’s Cuban All Stars on ‘Descarga Numero Uno’ and ‘Descarga Numero Dos’ for the Gema label, which were included on the various artists collection Los Mejores Musicas De Cuba (reissued by Palladium Records in 1988). He played bass on Cuban Jazz aka Sabor Cubano on Gema (reissued by Palladium in 1988) by percussionist Walfredo de los Reyes, who appeared on the first two Panart Cuban Jam Session volumes. The album also featured pianist Paquito Echavarría. Meanwhile in New York, the Cuban Jam Session releases inspired the first in a series of Latin jam albums by the Alegre All-Stars in 1961. Descarga recordings by other New York-based artists and bands followed, including albums by Kako, Johnny Pacheco, percussionist Osvaldo ‘Chi Hua Hua’ Martínez, Tico All-Stars, Cesta All-Stars, Salsa All-Stars, Fania All Stars and SAR All Stars.
In 1963, Cachao took up residence in New York and was initially desperate for work. Charlie Palmieri persuaded his regular bass player to stand down for a while (he had gigs with other bands available) so that Cachao could step-in to earn some money. Stints with various band leaders followed, including Johnny Pacheco, Tito Rodríguez, Candido, Eddie Palmieri, Julio Gutiérrez, Lou Pérez, George Hernández and Pupi Campo (he worked with the latter two in Las Vegas), before he relocated to Miami. Rodríguez paid tribute to him with the track ‘Descarga Cachao’ on his 1964 release Tito Tito Tito. Cachao received the opportunity to record with the Alegre All-Stars in 1965. Al Santiago explained: ‘... we decided to do a tribute to Noro Morales and we called it the Kako After Hours Orchestra; picking up the musicians at five in the morning after everyone was done with their regular gigs. We had Cachao there, and Bobby Rodríguez, one played one side of the record and one played the other!...’ (quote from 1990 interview with Nancy Rodríguez). He appeared on recordings by the Tico All-Stars in 1966, at New York’s Village Gate, and in 1974 at Carnegie Hall. Cachao again shared bass playing chores with Bobby Rodríguez on 1968’s Salsa All-Stars produced by Al Santiago.
Cachao appeared at the memorable March 1977 Lo Dice Todo (This Says It All) concert at the Avery Fisher Hall, New York. Shortly afterwards, some of the musicians who participated in the concert, such as Charlie Palmieri; Don Gonzalo Fernández (flute); Felix ‘Pupi’ Legarreta, Alfredo De La Fé and Eddie Drennon (violins); and Chi Hua Hua and Rolando Valdés (percussionists), were among the personnel on Cachao’s Cachao Y Su Descarga ’77, Vol. 1 and Dos on Salsoul Records. In 1981, Cachao collaborated with Walfredo De Los Reyes, Paquito Echavarría and Cuban percussionist Tany Gil on the Latin jam-orientated Walpataca on the Miami-based Tania Records label. In 1986, he led a descarga group on Maestro De Maestros: Israel López ‘Cachao’ Y Su Descarga ’86 also on the Tania label, which included José Fajardo, de los Reyes and Echavarría. In November 1987, Cachao journeyed to New York to perform at a tribute to him at Hunter College Auditorium, which featured Tito Puente, Charlie Palmieri, Pupi, José Fajardo, Alfredo ‘Chocolate’ Armenteros, José ‘Chombo’ Silva (violin/saxophone), Barry Rogers (trombone) and others.
During his years in New York and Miami, Cachao sessioned on albums by a string of artists and bands, including Carlos ‘Patato’ Valdez and Eugenio Arango ‘Totico’, Candido, Hubert Laws, Eddie Palmieri, Mongo Santamaría, Lou Pérez, Pedro Rafael Chaparro, Héctor Rivera, Charlie Palmieri, Chano Montes, Pepe Mora, Hernán Gutiérrez, Ñico Rojas, La India De Oriente, Roberto Torres, Hansel And Raúl and Grupo Niche. He also performed with the Miami Symphony Orchestra.
In the 90s, Cachao’s career gained a much higher profile thanks to the support of Andy Garcia. The Cuban-born actor and musician directed the 1994 documentary Cachao... Like His Rhythm There Is No Other, and produced and recorded Cachao’s Grammy Award winning Master Sessions series. Cachao won several further Grammy Awards during his lifetime, both for solo recordings and contributions to other albums, the last coming in 2005 for the album ¡Ahora Si! He died on 22 March 2008 in Coral Gables, Florida, from complications resulting from kidney failure.