Cuban Pianist, International Treasure: Bebo Valdés

By Daniel Garrett

Bebo Valdés
Producer: Fernando Trueba
Executive Producers: Fernando Trueba, Nat Chediak
Calle 54 Records
Mojito Records Corp./Union Music Group, 2006

Cuba: an island, one of the lands Columbus stumbled upon in 1492, claiming it for Spain, a land peopled by a population whose ancestors were American Indian (Ciboney and Taino), Spanish, and African, a land that conjures images of coffee and sugar plantations, and Fidel Castro’s revolutionary soldiers, and countless doctors, and old people and old cars. One thinks of Cuba and thinks of Catholic repression and tropical sensuality. One thinks of free education and desperate nighttime escapes by raft. One thinks of music, great music, such as that made by pianist Bebo Valdés, born not long after the beginning of the twentieth century (1918) and still with us. Even knowing that many of the associations one has with the island of Cuba are clichés of a vintage to turn wine into vinegar, much of Bebo Valdés music on the solo recording Bebo sounds like a lost score for an ideal life. Bebo Valdés has said that he absorbed all kinds of music, not only classical music but jazz, boogie, the danzon, and the rumba (with danzon being the name for the ballroom dance music, featuring brass, tympani or kettledrum, and woodwind instruments, played by Cuban musicians; and danzon had European roots, as did some of the other early Cuban music). Bebo Valdés played music in Cuba, working in clubs and for a radio station, but he, like some other musicians, did not feel as welcomed in Cuba after the Cuban revolution. He spent many years in Sweden, living the life not of a famous man but of a working musician, though he is now much acclaimed. Bebo Valdés is “a living archive of the piano literature of Cuba,” wrote Victor Verney on the web pages of the online magazine All About Jazz, in the beginning of his January 28, 2007 review of Valdés’s recording Bebo, an excellent piece of music commentary that sketched the biography of the pianist, suggested his political context, and described the “modest” man’s mastery, the “seemingly effortless manner in which he handles the complex polyrhythms that are a hallmark of Cuban music,” including Bebo Valdés’s presenting work alone that usually demands several different kinds of musicians. It is a mastery, elegant and elegiac, of the “the cultivated and the popular,” in an album of “thirteen pieces exemplifying Cuba’s major musical genres, starting with the emergence of a recognizably Cuban music in the mid-19th century,” in which the songs “are presented more or less chronologically—contradanza, danza, danzón, bolero, guaguancó,” an album that promises to become a pleasure and a defining reference for others, as much as it has been a joy for pianist Bebo Valdés. “If you are a musician, and you do one thing, you should enjoy what you do,” Bebo Valdés told a contributor (Felix Contreras, All Things Considered) to National Public Radio’s web site, January 19, 2006, a year-and-a half ago, with Valdés adding, “This is my profession and it is my hobby. And I live in love with what I do.” What he does is create beauty, something given a new reality in the hands of each unique artisan: beauty as complexity, beauty as melody and order, beauty as inspiration and passion, beauty as delight. When Bebo Valdés played with the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra in the Rose Theater at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, Jon Pareles wrote in the October 16, 2006 New York Times that “Mr. Valdés revealed his conservatory training and an epigrammatic wit. There’s Chopin and Mozart in his playing, as well as Cuban son and danza. His touch is precise and dainty, and his voicings are transparent; he delineates the rhythm of a mambo or a guajira with a few syncopated chords, neatly sets out a theme, then dances above it with lines in parallel octaves or twinkly filigree. Working with an ensemble, he animates the group like a puppeteer pulling marionette strings up above, barely visible but essential.” Why is not all music as careful, charming, fine, dynamic, orderly, and precise? The music of pianist Bebo Valdés, as heard on Bebo, is intimate, and one can hear that this is one human being’s musical performance, and it seems a text on how to attain the sublime.

The collection Bebo is dedicated to Guillermo Cabrera Infante (1929-2005), a Cuban novelist and intellectual. The beauty of the songs on Bebo is a lesson in economy: duration is not the only persuasive element, or the most impressive element. One can imagine the first song on Bebo, Manuel Saumell Robredo’s “La Caridad,” performed at a recital or danced to at a formal party, and the same with Robredo’s “Tu Sonrisa,” which has a fast tempo and many notes. A little somber, with light notes followed by darker notes, then a kind of fanning of notes that call to mind a pretty public demonstration of amusement and surprise, is Ignacio Cervantes’s “Danza no. 1,” while Cervantes’s “Danza no. 2” inspires thoughts of the kind of comfortable life that might have inspired such music. (Danzas were a transformation of French music; and Cervantes considered Robredo and Chopin as progenitors. Chopin had a French father and Polish mother.) The music suggests a comfortable grandeur. Of course, life is not ideal for everyone, and one man’s luxury often comes after the sweat of a very different man. Such is the foundation of much of the conflict and drama in the world. There is a halting beginning of near suspense, with a slow thoughtful exploration—full of care, conviction, and given appropriate pace and space, in Sindo Garay’s “La Bayamesa,” apparently a song written the same year Bebo Valdés was born, while the Afro-Cuban violinist and composer José Silvestre White’s “La Bella Cubana” is grave, mysterious, engaging, and becomes sprightly, surprisingly light, before returning to a thoughtful mood that does not seem as weighted as when the piece commenced. (White, born in Cuba to an Afro-Cuban mother and Spanish violinist father, studied in Paris, and toured the Americas, including the United States, and lived and worked for a time in Brazil before dying in Paris.) Eduardo Sanchez de Fuentes’s “Tu” and Jorge Anckerman’s “La Flor del Yumuri” can seem like they belong to the rites of old mysteries, an antiquated order of values, old ceremonies of love and the social order: and I imagine that may seem true to anyone who has lived long enough to see history’s changes, such as pianist Bebo Valdés. “Tres Lindas Cubanas,” by Guillermo Castillo and Antonio Ma (Maria) Romeu, has a complex density that is impressive as the work of only one musical performer, Valdés, as there is such tonal variety. (Romeu was known for the social ideas in his work.) Ernesto Lecuona’s “Al fin te vi” is a piece of energy, and Lecuona’s “Danza Lucumi” seems contemporary. Why contemporary? It sounds as if one can hear the human voice in the melody and rhythm—a very direct voice—but isn’t that the ambition, an old ambition, of much instrumental music? The “Danza Lucumi” is one of Bebo’s most appealing compositions, one with many colors. (Ernesto Lecuona, who had a sister named Ernestine who was a composer too, himself traveled to Spain, France, and the United States, before exiling himself to Tampa, Florida.) Ernesto Lecuona’s “La Comparsa” is a bit of melody and counter-melody, suggesting dialogue or hesitation. The song “Echale Salsita,” by Ignacio Pineiro, who grew up in the black neighborhood of Havana and later became a friend of George Gershwin, is pleasant, as is Moises Simon’s “Marta,” and that may sound like faint praise, but, sometimes, one needs to take a break from the inclination to genuflect. Silvestre Mendez’s “Consuelate” is a good companion to meditative thoughts, and Bebo Valdés’s own song “Oleaje” is elegant and entertaining. Listening to the music of Bebo Valdés, I think of a Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn song (“Something to Live For”) that asks, “Why can’t I have love like that brought to me?” The concluding composition, Virgilio Marti’s “Cuba Linda” has an intricate structure and Spanish flavor. (Press notes from two decades ago: “Mr. Marti specializes in Guaguanco, a traditional Afro-Cuban rumba variant that emphasizes improvisational singing in a romantic but relatively unadorned style, and complex percussion,” wrote Robert Palmer, The New York Times, April 26, 1987, commenting on a New York performance at the Kitchen, curated by Arto Lindsay. Palmer said that Marti’s ensemble’s “rhythms lapped against each other like spreading ripples in a pool suddenly agitated by raindrops.”) True poverty is not knowing this kind of art can exist—or knowing the art exists and being so stressed that it does not matter.

Pineapples, pears, apples, bananas, figs, pumpkin, and watermelon are not the only fruits brought forth by Cuba. “Simply put, pianist, composer and arranger Bebo Valdés is a genius,” began Steve Horowitz, in his October 28, 2005 review of the multi-disk album Bebo de Cuba (2005). Horowitz described Bebo Valdés’s eight-song “Cuban Suite” as an “imaginary play for the mind,” noting how one is “transported as the drums, timbales, bongos and congas set the rhythms bouncing,” with the piano rising to “smartly direct and comment on the action.” Horowitz named “Copla No.4,” and “Miriam” (from the second disk of Bebo de Cuba, “Bebo’s Place”), as remarkable, exceptional pieces.

Why can’t I have love like that brought to me? A day comes when you realize that you cannot make up for lost time, for lost opportunities, for lost love: there is only now. Music is solace; and more—listening to Bebo Valdés, it is possible to believe that melody can express thought, that it can teach: acceptance, forgiveness, generosity. Several years ago, Bebo Valdés said, “I don’t have future projects but rather present ones. I intend to do as much as I can, god willing. At my age I can’t make long-term plans.” (That was told to Ezequiel Paz, of Madrid, appearing on the web pages of, July 2003.) And now, Bebo Valdés has given us Bebo. Amazing.

Daniel Garrett, a longtime resident of New York, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, has written music commentary that has appeared on the pages of, Hyphen,, Option, and Daniel Garrett’s “Iconography: Ideas, Images, and Individuals in Film, Books, and Life” was featured on Daniel Garrett has written about art, books, business, film, and politics, work that could be read in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, The Humanist,, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. Garrett’s extensive “Notes” on culture and politics appeared on the web site of Author contact: or