Music

Review: Rhythm meets roots in a concert by Cuban masters Chucho Valdés and Albita Rodríguez

Written By Helena Alonso Paisley
September 28, 2023 at 7:32 PM

Afro-Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdés and singer Albita Rodríguez joined forces in a “Masters of Roots” concert at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium before embarking on a European tour. (Photo courtesy of InnerCat Films/Albita Rodriguez)

The broad range of Afro-Cuban music was on brilliant display on Friday, Sept. 22 at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium when pianist Chucho Valdés and singer Albita Rodríguez joined forces in “Masters of Roots: Albita and Chucho Valdés in Concert.” By the evening’s end, the nearly full auditorium was overflowing with joy, vitality and cubanidad.

Valdés’s roots are firmly set in the Latin jazz tradition—a musician friend said Valdés is an American when playing jazz and a Cuban when improvising.  Albita’s roots, on the other hand, are planted deep in the Cuban countryside, in the rich soil of “punto guajiro,” an improvisatory folk form that requires as much on-the-spot versifying skills as the most accomplished hip hop freestyler.

Seven-time Grammy winner Chucho Valdés, now 82, began piano lessons with his father, Bebo Valdés, at the age of three, and still plays with the vitality of a man half his age. (Photo courtesy of InnerCat Films/Albita Rodriguez)

Valdés’s creative impulse spans genres in much the way his giant hands span the octaves. He started the evening by asking the audience to imagine Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a glass of rum in one hand and a fat cigar in the other, lounging on a beach outside of Havana. Then he laughed as he launched into his composition “Mozart a la Cubana,” which, he said, showed what the iconic classical composer would have sounded like had he been born in Cuba.

His next piece traveled further south, to Argentina. “Lorena’s Tango,” which Valdés called “less ‘tango’ and more ‘tengo,’” meaning “I have” in Spanish.  Truer words were never spoken. Valdés demonstrated on this swinging virtuoso piece that, whatever ‘it’ is, at nearly 83 years old, he’s clearly still got it, and in spades.

To watch Chucho Valdés at the piano is to observe a master—not at work, but at play. His deft brown fingers will sometimes perform the most delicate dance on the ivories, later to bounce up and down like so many teenagers in a mosh pit, finally to careen down the keyboard like a fearless middle-schooler on a Slip N’ Slide.

Valdés’s musicians—Armando Gola on electric and upright bass; Horacio Hernández on the drum set; and Roberto Vizcaíno on congas—are all stellar performers in their own right, and the pieces of the band fit together like cogs in a fine clock, supporting one another and allowing each to shine in extensive solos on pieces like “Bacalao con Pan.”

Switching from upright to electric bass in “Mambo Influenciado,” Armando Gola was featured in a long and rich solo. (Photo courtesy of InnerCat Films/Albita Rodriguez)

When Albita joined Valdés onstage, it was clearly a meeting of artistic equals with tremendous respect and affection for one another. She recounted the conversation when the pianist called her on the phone a year ago:

—” ‘Albita?’ he said.

‘Chucho?’ I said.

‘How did you know who I was if I’m not a singer?’

‘Who doesn’t know who you are, Chucho?’ I said.”

“La Negra Tomasa,” written in 1937, was their first tune together, hearkening back to the singer’s past as much as Cuba’s. Just as Valdés’s first teacher at the age of three was his father Bebo Valdés, Albita learned to sing from her parents, who performed Cuban traditional folk music professionally as the duo Mima and Pipo. She explained her infancy, saying, “My mother didn’t give me milk, she gave me ‘puntos guajiros.’ ” It seems as if most of the audience had received a similar upbringing, as they immediately joined in on the chorus with gusto.

With virtuosic conga rhythms, Roberto Vizcaíno of Chucho Valdés’s Royal Quartet planted the band firmly in Afro-Cuban soil. (Photo courtesy of InnerCat Films/Albita Rodriguez)

Although there was a smattering of young gay couples and a few families with children in tow, much of the nearly full house was somewhere north of 50. They had clearly been listening to Albita’s music for a very long time. Perhaps even since her arrival in Miami in 1993 as a rebellious, androgynous-looking 31-year-old who earned her living singing early mornings for factory workers in Hialeah and performing Friday happy hours at Yuca Restaurant with the four amazing, funky and beautiful young musicians that had followed her across the Mexican border.

With her spiky hair, a black studded wristband and skinny black jeans, Albita arrived on the Latin music scene like a hurricane in a petite and powerful package.Thirty years later, her voice is still a force of nature.  She traded in the spikes on her bracelet for sequins long ago and her short haircut for big, blond curls. Still, that singular voice of hers is as full of gravel and grit as ever. If anything, it has only become richer and smokier with the years.

Drummer Horacio Hernández shredded on a long solo at the concert’s end, eliciting cheers from the enthusiastic crowd. (Photo courtesy of InnerCat Films/Albita Rodriguez)

The only head scratcher during the concert was when a group of guayabera-clad children came out to accompany Albita on “Coro a la Caridad,” a song dedicated to the Virgin of the Caridad del Cobre. Squeaky clean, with sunflowers in hand, they seemed more appropriate for a 1950s children’s television hour than for a concert showcasing two of Cuba’s musical royalty.

When Albita sang her old hits like “¿Qué Culpa Tengo Yo?,” and standards like “Lágrimas Negras,” the nostalgia in the house was palpable. Although you couldn’t tell who among the listeners was remembering their lost youth in Cuba and who was channeling their lost youth in Coral Gables, the auditorium was so alive with the feeling of belonging, both in the music and the moment, that it didn’t much matter.

And while it may be true that you can never go home again, at this concert, you felt pretty darned close.

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com.

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