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It's a typical weekday morning at Versailles. Most of the tables are occupied. The chatter among patrons is at its customary decibel level, competing with the clacking of utensils in the kitchen. Waitresses in tight green uniforms yell out instructions in Spanish as they tend to orders and race around the sacred Cuban restaurant.
Seconds later the pace immediately slows as a short older man makes his way through the front doors. Headed toward a table in the back corner, he has no choice but to stop and acknowledge the constant well wishes and pats on the back from those in the room.
"That kind of reaction is like good medicine to the soul," Cuban bass maestro Israel "Cachao" López says in a raspy but clear voice. "And good medicine keeps you sharp and going strong, right? Positive and beautiful people like that around me is the perfect remedy for me."
The 89-year-old famed innovator's bright blue eyes light up as he recalls the first time he put his hands on a set of bongos, at the tender age of eight. "I knew right then and there that I wanted to play music," says Cachao, the mastermind, along with brother Oreste, behind the Afro-Cuban rhythm of mambo in the Thirties. Later he would also spearhead the popular improvisational Latin jazz jam sessions known as descargas.
Cachao began his professional musical career as a percussionist in 1926, when his beats accompanied silent movies in Havana. He learned to play the upright bass several years later, which is no surprise since nearly everyone in his family played the instrument. "Everybody in my house was a musician. There was always something going on," says Cachao, who grew up in the same house in which Cuban icon, poet Jose Martí was born. "I also learned to play the piano and the très [a three-stringed guitar commonly used in Cuban music and more recently in flamenco], but I have dedicated myself to the bass all these years. It's the one [instrument] I love the most."
From the beginning, Cachao's forte was combining Afro-Cuban elements with traditional classic music. "The beauty of blending rhythms and developing new ones is what excites me about what I do — to this day," he says.
The flamboyant Pérez Prado began calling himself the "King of Mambo" during the Fifties, when he took the rhythm to Mexico. But Cachao insists mambo was born in 1937, when he and his brother were searching for new ideas after having written and recorded several string-and-flute charangas.
"Back then the danzón was a pretty basic and slow dance, so we were trying to come up with a new beat that would pick things up a little," he says. "We came up with a section called danzón mambo. It made an impact and really got people excited. At that time, our music really needed that type of enrichment."
Still, he insists, he has no hard feelings toward Prado, and both men remain close friends. "He put the rhythm on the map back then," says Cachao, who later toured with Prado in Japan after his bassist fell ill during a stop in the early Seventies. "We got along very well, and I've been working internationally ever since."
What's more, he says he did not enjoy the initial success of his creation owing to shyness and because, as a young man, he had been pursuing other musical genres, including classical music.
"I had the opportunity to work with all the great conductors that visited Cuba. The only one that I didn't have the opportunity to work under was Toscanini," Cachao says. He performed with the Philadelphia Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra and alongside many of the famous pianists of the time, such as Teodoro Ruiz and Claudio Arau. He also performed with the New York Metropolitan Opera and worked with Renata Tebaldi, "one of the greatest sopranos in the world," when she visited Cuba.
In the Sixties, Cachao was hired to perform at New York's Palladium, where he played with Charlie Palmieri and later with Pacheco, Tito Rodríguez, Tito Puente, and Machito. In 1970 he decamped to Las Vegas, where he lived for nine years, and then relocated to Miami, where he has been ever since.
Moving to the States was not an easy transition, though. "It was very hard — it is very difficult to become used to living here, especially for Cubans," Cachao says. "It took me five years to become comfortable here. Before that, I only thought about going back. It's a great shock because of the culture, the education, and everything else. However, after that period, you don't want to leave."
In the middle of recounting his 80 years in music, he stops midsentence to talk about a man he credits with rekindling interest in his career and internationally expanding his audience over the past two decades.
"I love Andy Garcia as if he were a son," Cachao says about the actor/director who produced and directed the 1993 documentary Cachao ... Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos (There Is Nothing Like His Rhythm). In the film Garcia, who met the musician in San Francisco in the early Nineties, traces Cachao's career from his years as a bongo-playing child prodigy to his invention of mambo and the descarga.