Bebo Valdés’ contributions to Cuban music went virtually unacknowledged for three decades. Then, in 2000, Spanish director Fernando Trueba and Miami producer Nat Chediak plucked him from anonymity (he was playing piano at a Swedish hotel) and coaxed him back into the studio. On their Calle 54 label, Trueba and Chediak have produced and released the recordings that have resurrected Valdés’ career. In 88 years, Valdés has gone from house bandleader and innovator to expat lounge player to a Grammy-winning elder statesman. The records prove that despite distance from his homeland and the passing of time, the maestro’s heart never left Cuba and his musical instincts are as sharp as ever.
Valdes’ love affair with music began in the late ’20s, when he was eight. On one occasion, his parents took him to hear pianist and bandleader Antonio María Romeu’s charanga orchestra. “They say that the following day, I went out to the yard and took some rocks and then pretended to play the piano on the rocks, using them as keys,” the 88-year-old recalls, on the phone from Malaga, Spain.
As a teenager, Valdés left the family and moved into a Havana ghetto, becoming immersed in the Afro-Cuban rhythms of the Santeria religion practiced by his mostly black neighbors. He went on to study European and Cuban classical music at the Municipal Conservatory in Havana. All the while, his ear remained attuned to the popular music of the barrios, especially the African-influenced rumba that spread like wildfire in Havana and Matanzas. Then in the early 1930s, he heard American jazz, soaking up Jelly Roll Morton, Tommy Dorsey and Dizzy Gillespie.
Around this time, bass player Israel “Cachao” López was experimenting with son, deconstructing its rural roots by adding the scraping sound of the guiro and making the timbal the backbone of a new sound. Valdés added his own piano to the syncopated passages of improvisation that López began to incorporate in danzones, and in 1937 the mambo was born.
Valdés had established himself at the legendary Tropicana nightclub as bandleader, pianist and composer. By the late ’40s, he drew from diverse influences that included American jazz when he became the lead pianist and arranger for Tropicana’s house orchestra. After World War II, his incessant explorations gave birth to a rhythm called the batanga. “I took the bata drums, two of them, something that was played for Obatalá [Santeria deity],” Valdés explains. “Then we took one conga and a conga segunda—I had two congas, one played the accents and the other replied, so then we used the tumbaos that Cachao more or less used in the mambo, and the timbal...and I called it batanga.” In June 1952, Valdés new rhythm was broadcast live for the first time by the RHC Cadena Azul radio station.
Valdés was on top of his game when his world was turned upside down after the triumph of Fidel Castro’s socialist revolution in 1959. When many of the island's casinos and nightclubs were shut down, Valdés asked for permission to travel to Mexico with his orchestra. In October 1960 he left the country, as well as his wife and five children, behind. He was 42. “It was very difficult for me to leave the country,” Valdés said. “To date I’ve not returned.”
His first-born, Chucho Valdés, became a renowned pianist in his own right, fronting the Afro-Cuban Jazz band Irakere and then embarking on a successful solo career. Father and son reunited for the first time, piano to piano, in Trueba’s 2000 film Calle 54. “For me it was never a surprise,” Valdés said of his son’s own virtuosity on the piano. “I always knew what Chucho was capable of since he was a boy...and now we play together. He’s my first son; we were even born on the same day. He’s just a great human being.”
After Valdés remarried and settled in Sweden in the early ’60s, he earned his living as an anonymous piano player in hotels. In 1994, he released Beb