© Manuel Naranjo
By Ned Sublette
I was present at the Rumba Para Bebo memorial fiesta / ceremony / concert in Barcelona October 29th, and will be producing a one-hour radio special featuring portions of it for Afropop Worldwide, to air in December, exact date TBA.
Bebo Valdés passed on March 22 of this year at the age of 94. Teenage buddies with Cachao, he was one of the handful of original Cuban mambo kings. He sat next to Antonio María Romeu on the piano bench as a child. He played four hands with Lecuona. Nat "King" Cole insisted that he be the pianist on Cole's Havana recordings. He taught Chucho Valdés music. I'm not going to try to sketch that whole arc right now. To keep it short: he left Cuba in 1960 and spent the intervening decades in obscurity, but he had a stellar last act. His life was the subject of the 2008 biographical documentary Old Man Bebo. After appearing in the 2000 music performance film Calle 54 and recording a major hit Cuban / flamenco crossover album, Lágrimas Negras (2003), with singer Diego El Cigala, along with a number of other fine records made for Nat Chediak and Fernando Trueba's label Calle 54, he became an international star during his final decade of life, and nowhere more than in Barcelona. His last work was the soundtrack for Trueba, Javier Mariscal, and Tono Errando's 2010 animated feature Chico and Rita, which begins with his perfect interpretation of José White's "La Bella Cubana."
He said on various occasions that "El día que yo me muera, no quiero lloradera. Graban un disco con mi música más bailable, se compran ron y chocolate, y a bailar" –he didn't want weeping when he died, but he wanted people to drink rum and eat chocolate, listen to his music and dance. Joan Anton Cararach, a close friend of Bebo's whom he referred to as his manager, carried his wish out, programming the Rumba Para Bebo as part of the 45th annual Voll-Damm Festival Internacional de Jazz in Barcelona, which he is the artistic director.
Sure enough, there were chocolates and complimentary shots of Ron Varadero in the lobby. The house was sold out –1,450 people. There were no chairs on the main floor.
© Lorenzo Duaso
The performers all came to the concert knowing what numbers they were going to play, but the sound check was the only rehearsal for the constantly shifting onstage lineup, directed by and centrally featuring Chucho Valdés with his Afro-Cuban Messengers (CV on piano; Gastón Joya on bass; Yaroldi Abreu on congas, Dreiser Durruthy on batá, and Rodney Barreto on drumset). Chucho has toured with several different editions of a piano-bass-drums-congas quartet in the post-Irakere phase of his career, but now that he's expanded the instrumentation to a quintet by adding a batalero, it's achieved a new richness and balance. Their 2013 album Border-Free might be my favorite album of 2013 (though there have been a lot of good records coming in), and the concert version of it they presented in Town Hall in June was one of the best concerts I've seen during this strong musical year in New York.
I will not attempt to describe the entire concert, which included pieces Bebo composed and others he was associated with or simply loved. Participants included vocalist Mayra Caridad Valdés, who is Bebo's daughter and Chucho's sister; Jerry González (from whose milestone 1998 album Rumba Para Monk the concert took its name) and David Pastor on trumpet; tenor player Eladio Reinón; clarinetist Doan Manfugás; Bebo's duo partner, bassist Javier Colina; pianists Omar Sosa (who has since begun a US tour with his sextet Omar Sosa Afri-Lectric; he's in San Rafael, California tonight), Lázara Cachao (daughter of Cachaíto), Javier Massó "Caramelo," Mauricio Vallina (playing Lecuona and Cervantes) and Paloma Manfugás; and a troupe of ten indefatigable dancers.
Importantly for our story today, the concert also featured a Cuban group based in Barcelona called Malongo, led by Lázaro Montalvo, collaborating with Omar Sosa. It was set up like a rumba group, with three cajones and a coro de clave, but half of the members, said Omar, were "not professional musicians, they're religion people. They do this in ceremony." They did only one number, but it was an extended number based on palo monte tradition (from the Kongo religion of Cuba) -- "a piece to honor the ancestors, for Bebo," said Omar. It ended with them singing the name "Bebo Valdés" as a coro. It gave me goosebumps, and not only me.
© Lorenzo Duaso
Let me see if I can analyze this in Kongo terms.
In Kongo thought, there are two worlds, the living and the dead, which are in constant contact with each other. There are spirits called simbi, which are present everywhere. Messages pass between the worlds in the form of sinsu and ndimbu, both of which words show up in a Kikongo dictionary as "signal," but which have complementary meanings in Kongo thought. I won't pretend to explain them, but when I interviewed Bárbaro Martínez Ruiz in July 2012 in Mbanza-Kongo, he put it like this:
Everything around us is full of sinsu and ndimbu. It’s the way [the Bakongo] understand communication…
In the religious domain… when you have to articulate a desire and you have to call upon ancestors, you have to call upon the simbi. Simbi is the kind of vitality that is everywhere… you have to go into the realm of religion when you want to have an exchange with simbi. That exchange needs to happen through the formalized language – language as a mechanism that allows you to exchange what you want, and the simbi receive what you want and answer you back…
The way to communicate to simbi is to write down on a piece of paper what you want…and at that very moment when you write it down on a piece of paper, it’s ndimbu… But the moment that simbi receives that request, he cannot write you back… the only way the simbi can articulate what they want you to know is not through ndimbu, because they are not capable of writing ndimbu. It has to be through sinsu, because sinsu is the one that has to be an abstraction that can only come to you through thinking or through dreams [emphasis added].
© Lorenzo Duaso
I believe I saw this principle in operation in Barcelona Tuesday night. The message was received. For the finale, the whole cast assembled on stage, maybe 45 musicians, prominently featuring the aforementioned Malongo, who fit beautifully with the virtuosic percussion of the Afro Cuban Messengers. Plus all the dancers and some audience members.
They did a new tune that Chucho brought, called "Rumba Para Bebo," during which the most extraordinary thing happened. After a certain point, with the whole cast joining in, a stage jammed full of high-quality musicians making a fat sound and dancers pushing the movement, Chucho was no longer directing it. No one was. I don't know how apparent it will be in the audio and video recordings, but what I felt in the room was that the music had taken charge of the hall and they couldn't stop. The music was playing the musicians. It went on and on, breaking down and building back up, gathering energy the whole time as they sang a typical rumba-style coro: vamos, con permiso, vamos . . . The only reason it stopped was that Cararach was advised by his production manager that the situation was becoming dangerous, because the stage floor might not be able to take the intensity of so many people dancing on it, so he reluctantly had Chucho cut the music off.
The next afternoon Chucho explained to me how he composed the final number. "I dreamed he [Bebo] was singing me a song," he said. Bebo and Chucho had the same birthday, October 9 (1918 and 1941, respectively), and this year was Chucho's first birthday since Bebo passed. He woke up that morning with a tune in his head. "Bebo gave me the melody," he told me. Chucho wrote it down, and titled it "Rumba Para Bebo."
It was a tune his father had dictated to him from the other side, on their mutual birthday.
You can't get more sinsu than that.
© Lorenzo Duaso