World renowned bassist, composer, bandleader, and mambo king, Israel "Cachao" López died Saturday morning at Coral Gables Hospital near Miami of complications resulting from kidney failure. He was 89.
Cachao was one of the last living legends who belonged to Cuba's musical Golden Age. During the pre-Castro decades of the 30s, 40s, and 50s Havana was a hotbed of rhythmic intensity, high musical standards, and showmanship nurtured by the vibrant nightlife of the cabaret era.
Classically trained, Cachao began playing with the Havana philharmonic by the time he was thirteen. What he lacked in stature - he had to stand on a box to reach the strings of the contrabass - he made up for with musical perception wise beyond his years, playing under the baton of guest conductors like Herbert von Karajan, Igor Stravinsky and Heitor Villa-Lobos.
Cachao made a name for himself with some of Cuba's greatest orchestras in Havana. By 1937, he and his brother Orestes, a pianist, composer and arranger, created the mambo, a faster, syncopated variation of the stately danzon. In 1957 Cachao revolutionized the way Afro-Cuban popular music was played. During spontaneous, after-hours jam sessions, master musicians would get together to let loose after playing in the highly structured and hierarchical nightclub settings. Under Cachao's direction the casual musical interactions developed into free-flowing improvisations in the tradition of American jazz, but with distinct Cuban idioms. Known as descargas, the fabled sessions were recorded and became the backbone for how Latin jazz and salsa would be played live.
In 1962, just three years after Fidel Castro took power, Cachao left the island. He lived in Spain for one year and then headed for New York, where he went on to anchor some of the great bands in Latin music at the time, including those of Tito Rodriguez, Jose Fajardo and Eddie Palmieri.
Eventually Cachao faded out of the New York salsa scene and survived as an anonymous working musician playing quinceañera parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs, or with back up dance bands in the notorious Miami Latin nightclubs of the 80s.
Cuban-American actor and music aficionado Andy Garcia rediscovered Cachao in 1989 and resurrected his prolific music career as the legendary master he was. In the '90s, García produced the recordings known as Master Sessions, accompanied by a documentary and tribute concerts honoring Cachao's legacy. In 1994, Cachao's "Master Sessions Vol. 1" netted a Grammy, and a year later he received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts at a White House ceremony.
Cachao's star continued to rise in the twilight of his life, collaborating and playing with artists like violinist Federico Britos, octogenarian pianist Bebo Valdés, the late salsa icon Celia Cruz, Cuban jazz saxophonist Paquito D' Rivera, salsa singer Willy Chirino, and trombone player Willie Colon. He won a Latin Grammy in 2003 together with Bebo and the late conguero Patato Valdés for "El Arte del Sabor." Another Grammy followed in 2005 for his solo project "¡Ahora Sí!"
Just days before he was hospitalized, Cachao was in the Dominican Republic receiving a lifetime achievement award. He was planning a European tour in August with Britos. Together they were in the pre-production stage for a CD of new compositions.
Cachao’s wife of 58 years, Ester Buenaventura López, died in 2004. Their daughter, María Elena López, a grandson, Hector Luis Vega, and his nephew, Daniel Palacio, survive him.