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The new Irakere

chuchjo valdesRecently hopes were raised regarding efforts to reunite the original members of the Cuban band Irakere, 42 years after their debut. Many of the founders have passed away while others are located in distant countries.

In view of all these vicissitudes, Dionisio Jesús Valdés Rodríguez, better known as Chucho Valdés, has decided to record an album of emblematic Irakere tracks, with a small big band, offering up an explosive mixture of jazz, rock, classical and a wide range of traditional Cuban music, including instruments and rhythms of Afro-Cuban religious ritual music, in a gesture of reverence to these musicians who made history, from 1973 onwards.

Thus the Havana pianist brings Irakere into the 21st century. It is an idea that was well received last year, during the jazz festival held in Barcelona, Spain, where novice musicians played well-known numbers by the band.

The album will be recorded by young musicians during a concert in France, and should be ready for release by July, Chucho Valdés revealed from Colombia, where he performed at the Jorge Eliecer Gaitan theater in Bogota.

Chucho believes it could prove to be a novel initiative, since young musicians wish to play their own versions of the singles which were hits across the world.

Chucho’s projects for the rest of 2015 include organizing several tours of Europe and the United States.

The musician, now over 70, has released almost 100 albums and features on a long list of Grammy nominations and Awards.

The Afro-Cuban Latin jazz icon has prepared himself both mentally and physically for these changing times.

Chucho belongs to that distinguished group of musicians who were huge stars in instrumentation, composition, musical arrangements and conducting.

In this list we can include Pérez Prado (The King of Mambo), Bebo Valdés (The King of Batanga), Antonio María Romeu (The King of Danzón) and Israel “Cachao” and Orestes López (The Kings of New Rhythm).

Taking stock of these memories, that first phase of Irakere faced all kinds of misunderstandings, they were criticized for the use of drums of African heritage in the new jazz, but they were always resolute and their success soon proved them right.

I remember, how could I forget, when they first travelled to the Polish Jazz Festival in 1970. On my return, I met Chucho, at the Festival of Popular Song of Varadero 1970, and there I saw them full of joy over their success in the presence of Dave Brubeck, a U.S. pianist and jazz composer and one of Chucho Valdés’ musical idols.

“Before Brubeck, we played Misa negra, our emblematic work, we played with everything we had, it was our big chance. The crowd cheered like crazy, stamping on the ground. All this euphoria scared us. People asked us to play another and another. In the end Brubeck hugged us and told us we were doing something new, different, and that this would open up a path for us into Latin jazz. We all began to cry.”

Chucho and Irakere were predestined to reach the peak of international success. The band was demonstrating the contributions of the new school of Cuban music that was beginning to bear fruit.

Then came that decisive year for Irakere, 1977, with the arrival of the Daphne cruise ship in Havana, bringing Dizzy Gillespie and a cohort of established jazz musicians: Stan Getz, Earl “Fatha” Hines, David Amram, Ray Mantilla, Anne Brackeen, Billy Hart, Rudy Rutherford, John Orr, Eddie Graham and the singers Marva Josie and Ry Cooder. The tour ended with a concert at the Mella theater.

Then came the big break, the big moment for Irakere, with the non-stop contracts to appear at the 1978 Newport Festival and Carnegie Hall, before McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans and Mary Lou William. This was followed by the Festival of Montreux (Switzerland). CBS released an album of five tracks by the group, including Misa negra (17 minutes) taken from their performances in Newport and Montreux.

This first LP entitled Irakere (CBS-EGREM) won the Grammy Award for Best Latin Recording in 1979.

The band’s successes accumulated into a long list of Grammy nominations and Awards, apart from those that Irakere musicians won as soloists. Leonardo Acosta deserves a special mention for his theoretical support, album notes and recording of the history of the band over the years.

Chucho Valdés and all the musicians who over these past 42 years have contributed to Irakere deserve our recognition. Let’s hope they continue to bring glory to Cuban music.


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  1. Ramon Gonzaez / Mister

    History should not be lost


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