Chucho Valdés and Irakere: A Musical Revolution

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Monday July 23, 2018


By: Richard Scheinin

It was June 1989 and 27-year-old Rebeca Mauleón arrived early at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, making her way toward the front of the room. It was packed and Mauleón wanted to make sure she had a clear view of the keyboard. She was there to see pianist Chucho Valdés, one of her heroes, and Irakere, the groundbreaking band he had founded 16 years earlier in Havana. A Latin jazz pianist from San Francisco who’d nurtured an obsession with Cuban music ever since her mid-teens, Mauleón knew the band’s recordings inside out. They had a scary level of virtuosity about them ‘” polyrhythmic, turning on a dime ‘” and Mauleón remembers thinking that ‘they couldn’t possibly pull that off at a live concert, and boy was I pleasantly wrong. I was just overcome with the sheer musicianship, the scope and the complexity of the music, how effortlessly they played the most ridiculously complicated things, and how they included pretty much every genre of music that I had ever listened to. In one swoop, you’re listening to the Yoruban liturgical music of West Africa and bebop and funk, and you’re hearing the musicians’ formidable classical training, and it was just like this one amalgam of things ‘” it was like a sonic boom that hit me.’

That night during intermission, she ventured into the club’s green room, introduced herself to Valdés and struck up a conversation that touched on the subtleties of the clave, the five-stroke rhythmic pattern at the core of Afro-Caribbean music ‘” and thus began a 30-year friendship. Valdés became a musical mentor, introducing her to members of his circle. He became a conduit into Cuban music for the young pianist, someone who helped her unravel its secrets.

Now Mauleón, Director of Education for SFJAZZ, has co-authored a book with Valdés: ‘Decoding Afro-Cuban Jazz: The music of Chucho Valdés & Irakere’ (Sher Music). On the one hand, the volume is an explainer for musicians who feel intimidated by the complexities of Afro-Cuban rhythms and folk genres. The book breaks them down, demystifying the musical language and analyzing 11 songs by Valdés, who has penned about 250 compositions through the decades.

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