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Cuban Music Lesson: Cachao Lopez

Get ready to be schooled, asere. It’s time for a Cuban music lesson! Learn to tell your cha cha cha from your mambo without leaving your couch. Put on your dancing shoes, guayaberas, park your 57 Chevy, light up that Habano, and pay attention.

By Jack Tomas

Quick, what type of musician gets no respect? That’s right, the bass player. Unless you are in a funk band or Rush, the bass player never gets the chicks. Cameramen focus on the guitarist, lead singer, and drummer with only an occasional obligatory shot to the poor bassist. This is stupid and unfair. They would be nowhere without the bass. The bass is the nerve center of the rhythm section. If the drums are the heartbeat, then the bass is the artery that pumps blood into the heart. Occasionally, a bass player comes along that is so amazing that he takes center stage. Paul McCartney, Geddy Lee, Les Claypool, John Entwhistle, and John Paul Jones are all great, but none of them hold a candle to Cachao Lopez.

Israel “Cachao” Lopez was born into a musical dynasty in 1918. Forty-three members of his extended family were musicians, half of them bass players. That is one funky family. Cachao was a musical prodigy, starting out playing bass in movie theaters as the soundtrack to silent films along with another future star, pianist Bola De Nieve. Cachao and his brother Orestes started playing around Havana when they were still teenagers. It’s said that the two of them wrote thousands of songs together. Thousands, people! Cachao had this wild notion of bringing the standup bass to the forefront and turning it from a classical to an African percussive instrument. He invented the convention of smacking the bass like a drum while you pluck the strings. It seems like a little thing, but it turns the bass into literally both a string and a percussion instrument. Cachao and Orestes are credited for having invented the mambo, the centerpiece of which was that crazy baseline.

Cachao later came to the States and was treated like Latin music royalty. Every bass player in every salsa band rips him off. He not only influenced Afro-Caribbean music but also jazz. Listen to any jazz bassist who was around New York in the 70’s, and you’ll hear Cachao’s sound. Cachao won multiple Grammys and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His nephew Cachaito Lopez was a founding member of both Los Zafiros and The Buena Vista Social Club. Sadly, Cachao died in 2008, but his memory lives on. Today and tomorrow, Lincoln Center in New York is having a tribute concert to honor Cachao’s huge impact on the world of music. Not bad for a bass player.

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