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Paquito D’Rivera Remembers Bebo Valdés

10.9.18 – 3.22.13

Bebo and Chucho Valdes
Dizzy Gillespie, Paquito D'Rivera, Bebo Valdes, Stockholm, 1981

In November of 1994, I produced Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés’ Bebo Rides Again for the Messidor Records label in Germany. Bebo had been living in exile in Sweden since the early ’60s, and this was his first recording project in over three decades. Surrounded by that certain aura of secrecy inherent in anything related to the island of Cuba, my wife Brenda Feliciano did the complicated logistical work to bring in timbalero Amadito Valdés (of Buena Vista fame), Irakere guitarist Carlos Emilio Morales and Bebo Valdés’ son Chucho from Havana. The historic recording session took place at the famous Bauer Studios in Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart, and it was the first time in all those years that Cuban instrumentalists from both sides of the Florida straits got together to put some music on tape.

From Holland we had Venezuelan percussionist Gerardo Rosales and from New York City came the dynamic bongosero Gabriel “Chinchilita” Machado, trombonist Juan Pablo Torres, Argentinean trumpeter Diego Urcola, tumbador Carlos “Patato” Valdés-an old friend of the star of the session-and Newyorican bassist Joe Santiago, who doubled as Valdés’ personal translator. Patato was known to have a very peculiar and percussive way of articulating words, and Santiago was one of the few individuals in the music business capable of understanding what the legendary conguero wanted to express verbally.

It was a real joy to watch the short Patato Valdés hugging his tall friend, nicknamed “El Caballón” (“Big Horse”), and talking to him so enthusiastically in that picturesque language that sounded like one of his conga solos. “Don Bebo,” translated Santiago, “he asked if you remember those days when you guys used to go for fried rice to la Plaza del Vapor en la Habana at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning.” Bebo responded with one of those sweet and charming smiles of his, embracing his tiny beloved pal even tighter.

My idea as a producer for that particular CD was to base the project on improvised piano duets by Bebo and Chucho, plus a couple of their compositions we’d played together in the past. As requested in advance, the Bauer crew had two gorgeous Steinway grand pianos ready to go, back to back in the middle of the ample studio, like they were waiting for father and son to make them sing loud together. Unfortunately, at the last minute and with no explanation whatsoever, Chucho canceled his flight from Havana to Germany, so his father ended up writing eight of the 11 cuts on the album in two days. And I must say that, coming from a 76-year-old man who didn’t enter a recording studio in more than 30 years, that was quite an achievement.

It certainly wasn’t the first time Bebo produced great work quickly. “[He] was very fast,” the comedian and record producer Guillermo Álvarez Guedes, a close friend of Bebo’s, once recalled. “He used to write in the middle of the night when returning back home from [legendary Havana club] Tropicana, and the charts he brought in the mornings to the studio sounded always glorious. … He was the best!”

Guillermo was right. “El Caballón” was fast, versatile, highly professional and very, very good in many ways. And for those of us who knew him well enough, Bebo Valdés’ warm, charismatic and unique personality will always epitomize that rare elegance of the Cuban musician, coming from a period unfortunately lost in time and space. Hasta la vista, dearest Caballón.

Originally Published