The Dream of a Comeback for Cuba’s Big Success
Story submitted by Heidrun Haug
Irakere was Cuba’s invention to enable the Cuban scene to compete with the international rock music development. The innovative band became a great success and won a Grammy in the 70s. The Cuban state cut the success tour when it forced the group to cancel their concerts in the US in favour of local events. The founders Chucho Valdés, Cuba’s most famous pianist until today, and Oscar Valdés, percussionist and singer, are two of Cuba’s many great music stars. After the breakup of Irakere, Oscar Valdés went on by himself and founded Diákara, a group of eight musicians with an Afrocuban, partly traditional religious repertory which plays every Thursday at the Havana’s Jazz Café on the Malecon. Roberto Santamaria, conga legend Mongo’s nephew, asked Oscar about his musical career – and his dreams for Irakere.
Oscar, you were born into a family of musicians. Did this determine your own way as a musician?
I grew up with my mother who was divorced from my father. My interest in percussion awoke when I listened to an old drummer who not only played the Batá but also manufactured them by hand. He taught me about the fundamental touch of that traditional drum. When I was 17, I went to see my father who played in an orchestra in Habana. During the intermission I went up to the drums and started to play. You can imagine my father’s surprise. Also once I got the chance to step in for a player who was sick. The orchestra director appreciated my rhythm knowledge and called me many times after that.
What pushed your career?
My way of playing straight forward and my creativity. I learned to play different percussion instruments and all types of Cuban rhythm. For example, in a Rumba dance show I had to play the complete set of bongos and timbales with great improvisation and a variety of creativity. I worked in different bands and shows. In the 50s, I was a very busy musician.
Can you tell us the story behind Irakere?
With the Cuban revolution triumph, cultural developments like Rock and Jazz were inhibited, which was a wrong development. But in the beginning of the 70s, the government recognized that the best way to attract young people was to create an orchestra with “música moderna”. Many young musicians like Paquito de Rivera at the saxophone, Carlos Emilio at the guitar, Carlos del Puerto at the bass, Chucho Valdés at the keyboard met with famous old ones like Guillermo Barreto and worked together under the direction of Antonio Maria Romeu. He was the conductor of the big orchestra and he knew a lot about jazz. These are the musicians who later formed Irakere.
This kind of music was new for Cuba. What did musicians from other countries think about it?
First we performed in Canada during a very important music exhibition. When other musicians from all over the world heard us, they complimented us strongly. In 1972, the orchestra was out to the boom. Many of us were unhappy and we felt that the band should better be apart. One of those days we met at my mother’s house and we planned to talk with the authority of the Minister of Culture. That was the day when we founded Irakere. The band gave a new spin and big development to Cuban music. Especially to the fusion of mixing traditional elements of our root music like Yoruba, Abakua and Arara with jazz, rock and funk – all the new waves of universal modern music. Irakere became a big footprint and influence in our music. We got a lot of international premiums and awards including the Grammy.
Can you explain the roots of Cuban drums and percussion and its influence on Cuban music?
The list of groups of elements of percussion in Cuba is very long. We are deeply influenced by African culture, especially from Congo and Nigeria. From the north of Nigeria came the Yoruba people, who brought their culture and music with its religion called La Regla de Ocha. In Cuba, that religion is called Santaria. They use three batá drums to play the music of its gods. The big drum is called Iyá, the middle sized one is called Ytoteles and the small one Okonkolo. The culture of Congo also brought drums which are employed in its religion – here called Palo Monte. Another group is called Carabalies who has a secret society of warriors called Abakua. All these elements have been integrated into Cuban music and mixed with Western elements. Among the actual Afrocuban instruments of percussion we can see them as bongos, bells, congas, timbales, maracas, cajones, clave, güiro and chékere.
You are also a priest of Yoruba, lucumi. How do you consider the influence of religion on Cuban music?
In Irakere we mixed this religious music with contemporary styles like Rock, Soul, also Symphonic. In the beginning, this fusion was difficult for me because I felt it was a violation to the religion. Many times I changed the words out of respect for our saint religion. Once Mercedita Valdés, one of the most recognized singers of this religious music, approached me about the subject. We both agreed that it was especially important to remain authentic. So, I studied the fundaments very seriously and tried to maintain the tradition. We created a masterpiece dedicated to the reflection of the historical King Chaka, who was a big hero against colonialisation in Africa. We used the real elements and combined these with Jazz and Symphonic. You can hear it in the piece “Misa Negra” included in the album we recorded during our tour in 1979 through the USA. This album got the Grammy for this kind of music. I kept working with this fusion to obtain the sound and tradition of our roots.
Many musicians of the new generation want to play in the Northern American way and forget their origin. I believe that the fusion with the Afrocuban roots makes our music more attractive because this makes it unique and not just a copy.
There were some rhythm innovations, too.
“Bacalao con pan” was very revolutionary, because we incorporated a polyrhythmic way of touch of Batá drums. Also I used a bell, held a stick in one hand and played five congas with the other one. The rhythm was called timba.
Many aged Rock stars are back on stage nowadays. Would you like Irakere to make a comeback?
I am happy with the work we accomplished. It was widely recognized and applauded in the world for everyone to see. To be honest, quite often, when I talk about it I get very emotional. It is like a son I have raised. And I expected to grow old with that band. If there would be a chance to come back I would quite happily do it. I felt great then – as a person and a musician. We were not just a band, we actually were a family.