Ten years from now, Valdes' stature could be comparable to that of seminal composer/pianist Ernest Lecuona, who spurred a renaissance in Cuban music in the early 1900s. "To have someone of Chucho's caliber here, not only as a musician but as a profound historian of Afro-Cuban music, is truly a blessing," says noted Bay Area pianist and author Rebeca Mauleon. While working with Cubajazz and Accion Latina, two groups who are sponsoring Irakere's U.S. tour, Mauleon says they were afraid they couldn't get the necessary visas. "Given the climate around cultural exchange with Cuba, it's a dream come true," she adds.
The son of noted mambo big band leader/pianist Bebo Valdes, Chucho started learning the piano by age 3 at his father's urging, and was studying at the Havana Conservatory by the age of 9. As director of the orchestra at the legendary Tropicana nightclub in Havana, Bebo's band backed up everybody from Cuban greats to visiting American stars like Nat King Cole, Buddy Rich, and Dizzy Gillespie.
"[Bebo] was my musical idol, and still is," Valdes says. "I wanted to be like him, to play the things he did on piano that I thought impossible."
In 1963, the younger Valdes started a combo that included famed reedman Paquito D'Rivera, guitarist Carlos Emilio Morales, bassist Carlos Del Puerto, and drummer Enrique Pla. In a strange twist of fate, the Cuban government initiated a search for all-stars to fill the official Cuban Modern Music Orchestra, and all of the musicians in Valdes' group were enlisted.
"It was there," recalls Valdes, "that we met trumpeters Arturo Sandoval and Jorge Varona and saxophonist Carlos Averhoff, and decided to add a brass section to the combo." The group dubbed itself "Irakere," which is Yoruban for "forest." The Modern Music Orchestra offered its players a fertile training ground with strict technical standards. Not only were the members required to be ace sight readers, but they had to work alongside the state symphony and do all the soundtracks for the Cuban film industry.
"After seven years we realized we had learned all we could and were wasting time," Valdes says. "We wanted to do our own thing, so we left to continue Irakere."
Irakere began to explore the language and folklore of Africa, especially Yoruba, as many Cuban slaves were direct descendants of the Yoruban peoples of Nigeria. The band added the sacred hourglass-shaped Bata drums of the Yoruban religion, and fused African rhythms with jazz and rock and knock-your-eyeballs-out musical arrangements.
"The result was a scandal," Valdes remembers. "I realized early on that we had a horn section of virtuosos that gave me the freedom to write whatever I wanted and they could play it. That liberated my pen."
But Irakere was meant to be more than an intellectual pursuit, and Valdes tried to appease the public by mixing electronics with popular dance rhythms that quickly caught on with Cuban youth. When word filtered out that there was something unique brewing on the island, Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie visited in 1977 and gave Irakere the thumbs up. The band's American debut came the following year with an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival. Shortly after, Irakere recorded a self-titled LP for Columbia Records, which won a Grammy -- a first for a Cuban band. Ironically, Irakere was denied entry into the U.S. to accept it.
The last time the entire group performed in the U.S. was at the 1987 Chicago Jazz Festival, which was broadcast by National Public Radio. At that point both D'Rivera and Sandoval had defected for greener pastures here. Today, Valdes views Irakere as a launching pad in the same vein as Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers: When musicians feel they've outgrown the band, they move on. But Valdes feels no remorse. "I have two very young trumpet players in the band who are 18 and 19 years old," he says. "In my opinion, they're the most spectacular horn men the island has ever cultivated. None of the greats that I've known could play like that at their age."
Though Valdes is a mentor to many, and has taught in South Africa, he says he still has a student's hunger for knowledge. Recently, he lived in the African jungle with the Zulu people, staying in the place where Chaka Zulu was born.
"I studied their religion, rhythms, and songs, which are totally unrelated to what [Cuba] has inherited from Nigeria. It was very emotional for me," he says softly. "I hope to include [those feelings] in our music."
Irakere West plays with guests John Santos, Orestes Vilato, Edgardo Cambon, and Cuban trap drummer Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez Thurs-Fri 11/16-17 at the Great American Music Hall in S.F.; call 885-0750.