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Candido and Graciela: Unforgettable

Graciela Perez
Candido Camero and Graciela Perez

Candido Camero and Graciela Perez have discovered a way to defy time. The Cuban conga master and the one-time First Lady of Afro Cuban jazz simply ignore it. In Spanish Candido announces, “No importa los anos que pasan.” The translation is just what it looks like: “The years that pass are not important.”

As if to prove that point, they have a new CD out. He is the youngster in this team at 83. She is a spry 88. “I feel like making another [CD] just because I’m still alive,” she laughs.

The music they make together on Inolvidable (Unforgetable) (Chesky) also defies time. It is like stepping into a time machine back to the late 1940s, the golden age of the Palladium Ballroom. The legendary New York City ballroom was an incubator of Afro-Caribbean dance music until it closed in 1966.

They are now well known to Cuban music fans by their first names only but they both got their starts in music during that era. In 1943 Graciela arrived in New York from Cuba to become one of the lead vocalists in one of the top bands of that era, Machito and his Afro-Cubans (Machito was her older brother). Candido came to the U.S. in 1946 and immediately found work with the top dance bands of that time.

It was a musically fertile period that would shape the sound of both Afro-Cuban music and jazz for years to come. “There was always a lot of admiration and respect among the musicians back then,” he says. “There was no competition; we did not have enemies. It was just the opposite: there was a great friendship and respect amongst the musicians back then.”

“We were so happy that the public accepted us so much,” Graciela says of her days with Machito. “And we always thought that we could never say one band is better than the other. The public told us which bands they liked best.”

And how did they know that? Focus groups? Polls? Surveys?

They did it the old-fashioned way, according to the singer: “Through record sales and the dance floor. People would dance to our bands then go to the record stores and ask for our records. That’s how we did it back then!”

One listen to the new CD, and you get an idea of what it must have been like on the Palladium’s dance floor. The CD is 55 minutes of classic grooves that immediately make the hips sway. The flute-and-violin frontline make the music a charanga-inspired bolero and cha cha cha fest. Pianist and arranger Sonny Bravo (Tito Puente’s long time pianist and arranger) breathes new life into Afro-Cuban standards. Candido displays a technique and sense of timing that is as natural as breathing in and out. Graciela then adds the requisite majesty with a sense of timing and phrasing that owes as much to the clave as the drummers on the session.

Charanga, clave, bolero? Do you need a glossary to appreciate this music?

Hardly. The rhythms behind these terms have become recognizable around the world since those glory days of the Palladium. Just don’t call it salsa. At least not in front of Graciela.

“Someone took away the names of the Cuban music,” she says. “Each rhythm had a name and a dance associated with it. [Along the way] someone called it salsa and changed all the beautiful names: guaguanco, rumba, danzon. It’s now a whole bunch of styles all bunched together in ‘salsa.’ But nowadays people don’t know how to really dance to those rhythms or play them. For me salsa doesn’t exist-only the rhythms of Cuba!”

Both Graciela and Candido have been playing those rhythms for more than 70 years. Arriving from Havana just in time for the revolution that became Cubop, their personal memories are also the history of Afro-Cuban music here in the US.

“I have had the luck to record and work with the biggest names in Latin [Machito and Puente], jazz [Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie] and pop [Tony Bennett],” he explains. “I never thought-sure I had dreams and certain ideas as a young man back in Cuba of how things would be. But I now have arrived at this moment in my life that I call a blessing of God.”

Graciela says she never thinks about her legacy. She leaves that to others.

“People think things of me and they admire me and say I am a pioneer. I don’t know about that. I like to think about the music and the memories of all the musicians I played with, both Latin and American. Sarah Vaughan, Ella, Dinah Washington-they were like family. They are the best memories of my life.”

Originally Published