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You do not know the darkness of life without mambo. This is because Israel Lopez, a Havana-born bassist, invented this dance/rhythm/feeling/universe some time in 1937, probably around a small round table with a bottle of rum on it inside a dark club in the wee hours of the morning. He was with his brother, the cellist and pianist Orestes Lopez, and probably with flautist Antonio Arcano, with whom he played in a charangas — a small dance combo. Then just 19 years old, the classically trained Israel Lopez was known as “Cachao,” pronounced like the percussive superhero punch-out: Ka-CHOW! Plucking the bass, he extended the final part of a danzon, a more formalized dance number, into a swinging improvised vamp, yelling “Mambea, mambea ahí,” which meant “make it swing” according to Cachao. With this he ignited a new world of motion and joy.

Mambo was promiscuous and fertile. Perez Prado introduced her to La Tropicana nightclub in Havana in 1943. Tito Rodriguez, Pupi Campo, Tito Puente, Machito, and Xavier Cugat and others followed on, bending her to their will, having their way. The mambo married Africa to Cuba and birthed the cha-cha, Celia Cruz, Desi Arnaz, salsa, merengue, Oscar Hijuelos, and everything sweaty and sensuous and dangerous, humid smoke, gangsters and spies, smiling beauties in red. Along the way, every jazz player from L.A. to Stockholm admired her, courted her, studied her ways.

Cachao left Cuba in 1962, toured for a while, wound up in Vegas, where he gambled away his money, and by the late 1980s was playing bar mitzvahs and airport lounges around Miami when actor and movie producer Andy Garcia decided to captain his comeback.

The immediate result was 1990’s Master Sessions, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, which led to a documentary, Cachao, Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos, and a Grammy award. There followed a revived renown and nearly two decades of tours, all-star concerts, and awards. Cachao performed very nearly until his death on March 22 at age 79.

There is a video of Cachao, made late in his life, jamming with pianist Bebo Valdez on “Lagrimas Negras” (“Black Tears”), the haunting, heartbreaking classic Miguel Matamoros composition. Here Cachao looks like Marlon Brando in The Godfather — the long face and jowly frown, the droopy eyes, the tuxedo, bowing his upright bass with the natural finality of a mafia don making an offer you cannot refuse. 

Ahora Si!

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