Music

Trio of Titans Reunite to Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Afro-Cuban Jazz Band Irakere

Written By Helena Alonso Paisley
February 6, 2024 at 10:18 AM

Chucho Valdés and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera onstage at the Knight Concert Hall, co-headlining the June 2022 concert that heralded the end of a four-decade professional and personal separation. Now they are back joined for a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Irakere. (Photo by Daniel Azoulay/courtesy of the Adrienne Arsht Center)

If the ground trembles a bit around the Adrienne Arsht Center on Friday, Feb. 9, don’t blame the State Road 836 construction project down the street. With an as-of-now sold-out house and a trio of true titans of the Afro-Cuban jazz pantheon playing together for the first time in 40 years, how could the earth but shake?

Pianist Chucho Valdés, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and multi-reedist Paquito d’Rivera will reunite in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Irakere, the iconic band that the three, together with other young musicians, began in Cuba in 1973. They will be joined by special guest Luis Enrique and accompanied by bassist José A. Gola, drummer Horacio Hernández, percussionist Roberto Jr. Vizcaíno Torre, trumpeters Eddy de Armas Jr. and Osvaldo Fleites, saxophonists Carlos Averhoff Jr. and Luis Beltrán and vocalist Ramón Álvarez.

As performers, Chucho Valdes and Paquito D’Rivera share a boundless creative curiosity. Their musical relationship began in Havana over sixty years ago and brought them, together to form the iconic Afro-Cuban jazz ensemble Irakere. (Photo by Daniel Azoulay/courtesy of Adrienne Arsht Center)

As Miami music maven and WDNA-FM “Cubaneando” host Viviam María López notes, the time was ripe for such an auspicious reunion.

“It’s like, when something as awesome as this is happening all the stars have to align and I think they did.”

Irakere, says Valdés in Spanish in a telephone interview, was a group project from the get-go. He, Sandoval and Rivera had been playing together for years in the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna, but they wanted to shake up the Havana music scene with contemporary sounds and a more expansive notion of what Latin jazz could be. Like a band of pioneers steered by the boldness and energy of youth, Irakere’s founders would set out together for territories teeming with unexplored grooves both electronic and ancestral.

“We were a generation of very restless young people, who wanted to change and do different things,” says Valdés, as he elaborates on how the decision was made to form a band that would come to mark such an inflection point in the history of Latin jazz.

“It is an idea that I had, but it was collective,” says Valdés. “Really, one of the things that inspired me the most was dance music, apart from Afro-Cuban jazz music, to which we added all the elements of African drums, etc. and also enriched a lot with the elements of jazz. But we also thought that we could enrich dance music by adding a little more harmony, breaking structures that were already created and opening a new path. And that new path was opened by Irakere.”

Like his father, legendary pianist Bebo Valdés, had done before him, Chucho Valdés would use traditional African drums such as the batá to add to the uniquely Afro-Cuban feel of his compositions.

With his trademark Kangaru cap and brightly-patterned silk shirts, Chuco Valdés’s style exudes the sense of confidence and joie de vivre that can be so clearly heard in his music. (Photo by OCP Photography Miami/courtesy of Adrienne Arsht Center)

In addition to infusing their new brand of jazz with the traditional drums of their forebearers, Irakere would also look to their peers in the worlds of funk and rock and roll for their innovative sonic elements.

“We started using electronic keyboards,” explains Valdés, “a variety of electronic keyboards, the guitar or the guitar with sound effects, right? Like the wah-wah, which was used a lot in those days, which is a pedal, right? … And the fuzz distorter, which is a guitar melody distorter . . . That, joined with the African drum part, with that rhythm that was more from funk and Cuban son plus the harmonies that the winds and brass were doing, those lines that were more from jazz.”

The sound was revolutionary for Cuba and revelatory for the Americans who would hear them on the band’s first tour here in 1979.

“Obviously it’s super important that their debut album in ‘79 got the Grammy Award,” notes López, “which really is a recognition that I think elevated them and Afro-Cuban jazz to a global audience.”

She cites it as an impactful moment in history.

. . . In musical history, Cuban musical history, and jazz as well,” she says, “where they break barriers, modernizing, if you may, Afro-Cuban jazz.

 And as Valdés himself points out, “The generation of young people now says that you can talk about a before and an after Irakere.”

Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, who was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2023 Latin Grammys, was a founding member of Irakere in 1973.
(Photo by Lonnie Timmons III/courtesy of Adrienne Arsht Center)

But long before Irakere was even an idea, Valdés remembers how the extraordinary Cuban music scene of the ‘40s and ‘50s had trained his ear and fed his musical imagination.

“The music was incredible,” he says, mentioning the many Havana nightclubs where international stars would appear on the regular, and cabarets like the iconic Tropicana, where his father, the legendary pianist Bebo Valdés, was musical director.

“I think it was the golden era of Cuban music, with artists like Celia Cruz, Benny Moré, Barbarito Diez. Well, there were hundreds of top-level artists, right? And the radio had great programs where the most important figures appeared, Cuban and foreign . . . The list is endless, really, of people, of great musicians. Not only good musicians, but all of them great.” Among those greats, it was Chucho Valdés’s father who was his role model in chief.

“Everything I know about music,” says Valdés, “my dad taught me. I was Bebo’s first fan.”

Like Sandoval and d’Rivera, Valdés found his passion for his instrument early. And like his two compatriots, his creative curiosity and gusto for seeking out new challenges and ways of playing have been the throughline from his days as a musical prodigy to his place now as a respected elder statesman of Afro-Cuban jazz.

Luis Enrique joins the reunion concert as a guest artist. (Photo courtesy of artist management)

Valdés is as upbeat, down-to-earth and sincere in an interview as he is onstage, where his megawatt smile looks as though it could light up a small city. And why should an 82-year-old man simply walk to the piano when he can strut, amble, or even dance his way over? I asked him the source of his energy and positivity.

“I was always very happy, very happy,” says Valdés. “But of course, I have been achieving results . . . with my work. I feel very happy making music and that is reflected in the smile, in the attitude, in the very positive part, in the desire to continue investigating and doing things,” he explains.

As long as artists like Valdés, d’Rivera and Sandoval keep breaking new ground with virtuosity and passion, discerning jazz audiences will continue to listen. And if the earth shakes a little bit, well—follow Chucho’s lead and just shake with it.

WHAT: Jazz Roots presents Chucho Valdés: Irakere 50 with special guests Paquito d’Rivera, Arturo Sandoval, Luis Enrique and Francisco Céspedes

 WHEN:  8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 9, 2024

 WHERE:  Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd, Miami

 COST: $45-$125. (At this time, tickets for this show are sold out).

 UP NEXT: The Jazz Roots series continues with “Artistry & Soul: An Evening with Singer-Songwriter Gregory Porter” on Friday, Feb. 23.

 INFORMATION: 305-949-6722 and arshtcenter.org

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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