Composer credited with creating mambo
Israel “Cachao” Lopez, the influential Cuban bassist and composer credited with creating the mambo who enjoyed a career revival over the last two decades, died Saturday in Coral Gables, Fla., where he lived. He was 89 and suffered complications from kidney failure.
Known mostly by his nickname, the bassist was revered by Cuban musicians and jazz players for his playing style, musical ideas and adventurous spirit. Besides the mambo, he also created the descarga, the jam sessions that found jazz married to music from Africa and Cuba.
Born in Havana in 1918, he started performing at 8, playing bongos. Before turning 10, he would accompany pianist and singer Bola de Nieve playing behind silent films. He joined the Havana Philharmonic in 1930 and was a member for 30 years. Simultaneously, he worked in Havana’s nightclubs, performing in bands with his brother Orestes.
In the late 1930s, Lopez extended the Cuban style known as “danzon” into the mambo by adding brisk, swing-oriented elements to the end of the danzon tunes. Lopez has said his first attempt at the mambo in 1937 was too fast for dancing. Once they slowed it down a bit, the style took hold with audiences.
That alteration to the danzon would become the foundation of Cuban music, spawn salsa and influence dance elements in Latin rock and R&B.
As the 1950s came to a close, Lopez was the bassist involved the legendary Havana jam sessions that integrated Afro-Cuban rhythms with modern jazz. He left Cuba in 1962 and worked almost exclusively as a sideman, mostly in New York, where he settled after initially moving to Spain. A stint in Miami found him playing clubs, lounges and parties; between 1970 and 1990, he made only three albums as a leader.
Actor Andy Garcia, also a musician and longtime fan, took on the job of elevating the bassist’s profile, initially staging a tribute concert in 1990 and making a documentary on him in 1993. Garcia also produced four albums for Lopez and a second documentary was made, which will be released next month. Lopez was scheduled to perform at the Hollywood Bowl this summer. He had recently canceled plans for a European tour and recording sessions.
The tribute concert was the basis for the film “Cachao, Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos.” The Garcia-produced recordings, which took place over five days, became “Master Sessions Volume I” and “Master Sessions Volume II”; the first volume won a Grammy.
According to a Variety review of a 2001 performance at the Hollywood Bowl, “Cachao remains a marvelously agile bass player, always firmly underpinning the rhythm and indulging in a madcap solo in which he offered some humorous avant-garde effects.”
A wake was set for Wednesday, and he is to be buried on Thursday.