Chucho Valdés in Conversation

On Saturday, October 16, 2019, Concerts from the Library of Congress hosted Afro-Cuban jazz master, Chucho Valdés. Founder and director of the legendary Cuban jazz band Irakere, winner of six GRAMMYs and four Latin GRAMMYs, Chucho Valdés is not just an authority in the jazz world, he is a living legend.

As part of his engagement at the Library, Chucho gave us the opportunity to interview him and show him some treasures from our music collections. In preparation for his visit, we selected some items that trace his life as a musician and also as the son of one of t he most representative musicians in the history of Cuban music, pianist and composer, Bebo Valdés. Chucho’s reaction to the materials was simply heartwarming. When he saw some of his father’s compositions, including “Que Vamo a Come,” he kept saying, “Ay mi Madre” (Oh my), “but you have things that I don’t,” and he laughed. He shared with us childhood memories growing up in a household of musicians in Havana in the early 1950s.

As a special treat, we showed Chucho a photo of him and the American drummer Max Roach from the Max Roach Papers housed in the Music Division. When he saw it, he paused for a moment, laughed, and said, “Ay mi Madre.” I asked him about one of his manuscripts called “Bloque” that is dedicated to Max Roach. Chucho laughed again and said, “I don’t know how you have that,” and went on to tell us about the day he first met Max Roach.

No one talks to Chucho Valdés without talking about Irakere. I had so many questions to ask, but I was primarily interested in learning about his experience with religious syncretism, the merging of two or more religions in a new belief, as an element of his music. Religious syncretism is present in many cultural representations in Latin America. I was curious to know his connection to the Yoruba and Lucumi religions and the batá drum, which were elements of his music during the era of Irakere. Chucho told me about his exposure to Santeria through his grandfather and to the Catholic church through his grandmother, and how he mixed these elements with jazz and funk to create the Timba Cubana. As Chucho described in his interview, the Timba Cubana marks a starting point for a new vision in Afro-Cuban music. Chucho describes the piece “Bacalao con Pan” as a bomb that became a standard in this genre.

It is interesting to see that even though Latin America is so culturally diverse, there are elements that are present almost across the board. Interestingly, bacalao, which is salted cod, is a dish present in many Latin American countries and particularly in the Caribbean. There are different ways of cooking bacalao, and in many cultures, it is eaten just like Chucho’s piece title describes, “Bacalao con Pan,” which means salted cod sandwich.

We concluded the interview with the question: what would you say to the new generation of musicians? Chucho’s answer was the summary of the musician that he is; he mentioned discipline as the number one characteristic a musician must have. Discipline plus passion for music have spurred this now 78-year-old Afro-Cuban jazz master to continue his musical journey that includes writing an opera, touring around the globe with a robust calendar of performances, and now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, connecting with his audience via online recitals on social media. I invite you to watch and enjoy Chucho Valdés in conversation.

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