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Cuban music innovator ‘Cachao’ dies at 89

Cuban musicians Israel "Cachao" Lopez performs during the Cassandra awards in Santo Domingo on March 10.

AP photo

‘Cachao’ Lopez

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Known to the world by his nickname, Cachao, bassist, composer and bandleader Israel Lopez died Saturday morning at Coral Gables Hospital of complications resulting from kidney failure. He was 89.

Cachao was, in his last years, the most important living figure in Cuban music, on or off the island. And according to Cuban-music historian Ned Sublette he was ”arguably the most important bassist in twentieth-century popular music,” innovating not only Cuban music but also influencing the now familiar bass lines of American R&B, “which have become such a part of the environment that we don’t even think where they came from.”

Cachao and his brother Orestes are most widely known for their late-1930s invention of the mambo, a hot coda to the popular but stately danzon that allowed the dancers to break loose at the end of a piece. Typically modest, Cachao always admitted that it was bandleader Damaso Perez Prado who made the beat world famous in the ’50s.

A possibly more important move took place in 1957, when Cachao gathered a group of musicians in the early hours of the morning, pumped from playing gigs at Havana’s popular nightclubs, to jam in front of the mikes of a recording studio. The resulting descargas, known to music aficionados worldwide as Cuban jam sessions, revolutionized Afro-Cuban popular music. Under Cachao’s direction, these masters improvised freely in the manner of jazz, but their vocabulary was Cuba’s popular music. This was the model that would make live performances of Afro-Cuban based genres, from salsa to Latin jazz, so incredibly hot.

After a rich musical career in his home country, he joined his fellow exiles in 1962, eventually landing in Las Vegas because, as he admitted, “I was a compulsive gambler.”

Though cured later in life, he nearly gambled away every penny until his wife whisked him away from the town.

For a while, he had two distinct musical personae. In the New York salsa scene he was revered as a music god, with homage concerts dedicated to him, and records of his music produced by Cuban-music collector Rene Lopez. In Miami, he was an ordinary working musician who would play quinceaneras and weddings, or back dance bands in the notorious Latin nightclubs of the Miami Vice era.

It took a celebrity, Miami’s own Andy Garcia, to integrate his musical personality into one: that of a legendary master. In the ’90s, Garcia produced the recordings known as Master Sessions and big concerts honoring his legacy.

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