Pianist Jesus “Chucho” Valdes learned firsthand, eight years ago, the main reason why more of his fellow Cubans don’t live in Chicago. It was March 1979. His band, Irakere–which fuses Afro-Cuban rhythms with jazz and jazz-rock–was here as the opening act in Stephen Stills’s national tour.
“The temperature was ten below zero. Ay-y-y, and the wind, it was something terrible,” he said, shaking his head in the hallway outside the WBEZ-FM studio where he’d just appeared on Victor Parra’s Mambo Express. With eyes wide and face toward the ceiling, Valdes made the sign of the cross. His two hands came together in front of a checked sport jacket, a colorful tropical shirt, and white pants. For a moment there, this tall, dark figure held a pose as prayerful as any Catholic you might see in the Maryknoll missionary magazine.
“Jesus. Amen,” he said.
The gestures and words were unexpected. From what we hear in the news, the Commie heathens have wiped every last vestige of spirituality off the face of Fidel’s island. Proof to the contrary was provided by this candid expression from Chucho, the most renowned member of a highly touted globe-trotting Cuban band.
You’re also wrong if you think these ambassadors of Cuban culture must have been surrounded by tight security. Irakere came to Chicago to appear as the closing act of the Jazz Festival’s opening night, Wednesday, September 2. Although they stayed for six nights at the Blackstone Hotel, their party included only 11 people: 10 band members and an equipment man. There wasn’t a security man in sight.
“I was furious at Dick Buckley [the WBEZ FM jazz host] two years ago,” said Deborah Evenson. Evenson, a DePaul University law professor, is president of the Chicago Caribbean Arts Association (CCAA), which expedited the Irakere visit. “He had absolutely no basis in fact for saying on the air that Arturo Sandoval’s appearance at the jazz fest meant that security was heightened. There was no reason for him to say that. But it set this tone of Cuba as a police state. The people of Cuba aren’t oppressed. But unfortunately the only way to find this out is by going there yourself.”
In 1983, Evenson and a number of other Chicagoans formed the CCAA as a way of bringing together the city’s distinct communities of Caribbean artists, most of whom are more interested in preserving Caribbean culture than in making money. “They exhibit an extraordinary variety of music and dance,” she said. “They come from very different countries. The common thread is that they are all the products of a blending of African and European cultures.”
The CCAA isn’t a booking agent. However, its ability to communicate with entities like Cuba Artista–the island’s state-owned music promoter–made possible Sandoval’s Bismarck Hotel concerts in 1983. Two years later, the CCAA cut through the bureaucracy to arrange the trumpeter’s return for Chicago’s Jazz Festival.
This year, Irakere barely managed to get here, proof perhaps of how well the Reagan administration is doing at discouraging U.S. music promoters from booking Cuban acts. The State Department’s delay in delivering the group its visas meant that a scheduled engagement at the Jazz Institute had to be canceled. Then Jazz Festival organizers nearly had to drop the Cubans because of their last-minute arrival. The State Department had listed New York as the group’s place of entry, though that city’s airports have no direct flights from Cuba. Because the band had to wait for four hours in the customs section of the Miami airport, they missed a connecting flight to Chicago. They arrived just in time for their sound check at Grant Park.
Irakere performs internationally four to six months a year. Their earnings are a source of hard currency for the state-run Cuban economy. Recently, the group did a 14-city European tour. In October, it has a five-week run in a London jazz club. The 14-year-old band, which has cut many records, has come to the United States only three times.
“The visa problem is a thing that we don’t understand,” said Oscar Valdes (no relation to Chucho), Irakere’s conga player and lead singer as well as its manager. “So many people want to hear our music, to see our art. Our message is music. It has no kind of political meaning. We don’t have anything against the United States. To the contrary. One of the strongest elements in our music is jazz. And jazz is American.”
In fact, jazz wouldn’t quite be jazz if a wave of freed Cuban slaves hadn’t moved to New Orleans in the latter part of the 19th century. According to jazz historians, the island players figured prominently in the early development of this rhythmic music form.
“Jazz and Cuban music are of the same roots,” said Irakere percussionist Jose Luis Cortes. “I’ve seen Americans who can play the conga like they were Cuban. We assimilate each other’s music in a way that isn’t true with Europeans.”
The Cubans’ electrifying Jazz Festival performance closed in an unusual way. Group members, beating congas as they left the Petrillo Music Shell stage, descended onto the grass and merged with the surprised crowd. Irakere–a Yoruba word meaning “jungle”–practices the centuries-old Cuban custom of ending a festival by enticing the crowd into a conga line.
An hour later, band members stood around the Blackstone lobby, wondering how long their first U.S. visit in eight years was going to last. Jazz Festival organizers cover the expenses of out-of-town participants for only four days, no more. Because of the limited number of flights to Havana, the rumor was that the group would have to leave within 36 hours. But all that changed when the CCAA arranged for a Sunday gig at the Moosehead Bar & Grill, proceeds to cover the expenses of a longer stay.
The band was free to come and go. So they went to the Fine Arts coffee shop, the rest of the Jazz Festival, and to jam sessions at the Jazz Showcase and Oz. Chicago’s Cuban community threw parties. The players went shopping. One bought some weather stripping for his Volkswagen back home.
Four days after their Jazz Festival appearance, two band members sat, enveloped in a cloud of cigarette smoke, in the Blackstone lobby, discussing whether the Cuban people were properly informed about Irakere’s Paquito D’Rivera, who defected in 1980 during a layover in Madrid, Spain. Percussionist Cortes argued that the Cuban people did get the news about the saxophonist’s decision to abandon the group he helped form. German Velasco, who replaced Rivera upon Irakere’s return to Cuba, disagreed. He said the full story, including Rivera’s reasons for going to the States, didn’t circulate much beyond music circles.
Cuba’s state-run media reported only the “desertion” of a “traitor.” The story did well in the United States, but using markedly different semantics. The media conglomerates reported that this musician hadn’t been “free” to play the kind of music he wanted to play. In other words, each system squeezed the man through its ideological wringer.
Rivera was a rare bird, in the sense that few musicians who might defect ever get the chance to travel outside of Cuba. The subject came up again at the Moosehead: “There are many excellent musicians who aren’t allowed to leave because they aren’t party members,” said Carlos Eguis, a 50-year-old Chicago percussionist who left Cuba during the 1980 Mariel boat lift. “I played with one of the top groups but was replaced when the band went abroad because I refused to join the party.”
“Chucho Valdes is one of the best pianists in the world, and he’s making about $450 a month,” said Sergio Cruz, a bass player and violinist with the Chicago group, Mambo Express Afro-Cuban Band. (Cruz left Cuba, as a teenager, in 1971.) “At home, everything is taken care of for him. His daughters are enrolling in medical school. Chucho has a sister living in New Jersey, and could have defected in 1979 during the three months that Irakere spent in New York making a record. But he’s not interested. These guys travel the world. When they go home, it’s to be home. All have ties that make them want to go back. It’s just the athletes who travel with heavy security.”
Irakere manager Oscar Valdes disagrees with that particular fact. “The people who accompany the athletes aren’t security, they’re trainers. Many of the athletes are young kids who don’t have enough experience to control temptations. If they are drinking and mixing with women, they won’t perform well. We musicians are older, more responsible, more capable of looking out after ourselves.”
Politics wasn’t an issue, however, the Sunday afternoon of Labor Day weekend when these ten musicians cranked out their high-energy sound on the Moosehead stage. Some 275 satisfied customers paid $10 at the door, all of which went to the CCAA to recoup its expenses. Trumpeter Jorge Varona hit a warm note when he told the crowd, in Spanish: “I wish health and happiness to all who are here, especially the Cubans.”
On Labor Day, the 55-year-old Varona returned to the bar, at Harrison and Wells, to join other Irakere members in a jam session with the Mambo Express Afro-Cuban Band. When not onstage, Irakere’s oldest member reveled in good cheer, both on the dance floor and sitting with a table of Cuban-Americans.
“Music unites people,” he said. “It is the universal language because it can be appreciated without understanding the words. Athletics can be a unifier too. But sometimes, when a team loses, there are riots and people die. Have you ever seen anyone get killed as a result of a concert?”
Varona, a soft-spoken man, is well schooled in sweet talk. He told one woman that her “beauty was an art,” in the same sense that a painter creates beauty on a canvas. His eloquence faded, though, when he was asked why no Cuban group has ever played in the heartland of Castro haters, Miami. “If Cuba Artista sends me to Miami, I’d go. I don’t know Miami and I’m not interested in knowing why Cuban groups aren’t asked to play there. I’m just here on a cultural mission.”
Chucho Valdes is no ideologue either. Music, not politics, defines his world. The 46-year-old keyboard artist began playing the piano at the age of four under the tutelage of his father Bebo, a master pianist who emigrated to Europe in the 1950s.
The crowd was told that Chucho was the reason pianist Dave Brubeck–the Jazz Festival’s opening act–stuck around that chilly Wednesday night to watch Irakere. And five nights later, at the Moosehead, Valdes won points with his fans by not only playing a couple of songs, dancing, and signing autographs, but by chatting about his debt to the American musician. “Dave Brubeck was my favorite, my inspiration, since the 50s,” he said. “I met him for the first time in 1970 at the Polish Jazz Festival. I went up to him and introduced myself. I told him that I always admired his music.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.