Follow Us on Twitter

Obituary: Israel "Cachao" Lopez

Obituary by Jack Foley

CUBAN-born jazz legend Israel “Cachao” Lopez has died in Miami at the age of 89, a family spokesman has confirmed.

The bassist and composer, who was widely credited with inventing the mambo, passed away with his relatives around him on Saturday (March 22, 2008). He had become ill in the past week and died at Coral Gable Hospital.

Born on September 14, 1918, into a family of musicians, López – often known just as “Cachao” (pronounced kah-Chow) – was encouraged to get into music at an early age. As an eight-year-old bongo player, he joined a children’s septet that included a future famous singer and bandleader, Roberto Faz.

By the time he was nine López had already taken up the bass and provided music for silent movies in his neighbourhood theatre, together with a pianist who would become one of the world’s great cabaret performers – Ignacio Villa, known as Bola de Nieve.

López’s parents made sure he was classically trained, first at home and then at a conservatory, and in his early teens he was already playing contrabass with the Orquesta Filarmónica de La Habana, under the baton of guest conductors Herbert von Karajan, Igor Stravinsky and Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Together with his late brother, the multi-instrumentalist Orestes López, Cachao composed thousands of songs and heavily influenced Cuban music from the 1930s to the 1950s, introducing the nuevo ritmo (“new rhythm”) in the late ’30s, which eventually led to the creation of mambo.

Then, in 1957, Cachao gathered a group of musicians together for recording studio-based jamming sessions in the early hours of the morning, creating the Cuban jam sessions that revolutionized Afro-Cuban popular music.

However, he left Cuba for America in the early 1960s and continued to perform throughout the States, with a variety of renowned artists, at venues including New York’s Palladium nightclub (where he could be seen with some of the leading Latin bands of the day).

He also collaborated with the likes of Tito Puente, Tito Rodrigues and Gloria Estefan, before moving to Miami in the ’80s and falling into obscurity.

However, López’s status as a music legend was secured when long-time fan and Hollywood actor and director Andy García developed a number of projects intended to bring him back into the limelight.

Among these were the recordings known as Master Sessions, as well as a series of big concerts honouring his legacy. The actor also produced a documentary in 1993, recalling the musician’s achievements and securing his place in history.

Thanks to Garcia’s efforts, Cachao became again a household name once again among Cubans and his reputation continued to grow. He even came back to international attention and released several successful albums.

In 2003, he was honoured with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame and, one year later, received a Grammy Award for his album Agora Si. Previously, in 1995, he won a Grammy for Master Sessions Volume 1, and again in 2003, a Latin Grammy for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album together with Bebo and Patato Valdés for El Arte Del Sabor.

His nephew, Orlando “Cachaíto” López, has also become one of the mainstays of the famed Buena Vista Social Club group.

Needless to say, Andy Garcia was among the first to lead the tributes to the Cuban legend. Describing him as “the musical father” of all Cubans, he said: “He is revered by all who have come in contact with him and his music.”

And he added: ““Maestro… you have been my teacher and you took me in like a son. I will continue to rejoice with your music and carry our traditions wherever I go in your honour.”

A funeral service will take place on Wednesday (March 26, 2008).