Lucie and Desi Arnaz Jr. pay tribute to their father's music in Babalu at the Arsht Center
To see one of the fiercest 2:16 seconds in television history, do a quick YouTube search for a clip called "Badass Babalu." This segment from the legendary I Love Lucy features the talents of none other than the late, great Desi Arnaz, performing an elegantly possessed version of the song that made him most famous.
That TV series chronicled the highly comedic exploits of its real-life couple stars, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. But beyond the zany high jinks that made it such an indelible part of comedy history, the show did more to introduce the American audience to Latin music than anything else on television either before or since. And in that short video, you can clearly see why.
Arnaz, as his television alter ego Ricky Ricardo, stands in front of his namesake orchestra with a conga drum strapped to his torso, belting out the words that would bring forth the god Babalu Aye. At first, he's his usual swinging self — slick, sly, and cavalier. But as the song progresses and the chorus (sung in Spanish, naturally) ends, he nods twice and looks to the sky for the deity he has summoned. And then things take a decidedly different turn.
The beat gets wilder, and Ricardo shouts to his band, whose members stand en masse and return his call with a lively vengeance. Then, still shouting and banging his drum, Ricardo quickly rips the knot from his bow tie and lets loose a true fury. A sort of possession takes over, and soon there's no question that Babalu Aye is there — in the man, in the song, on the stage, and on the screen.
It's a particularly bedeviling performance, one of a showman practicing some ancient and not always accepted rite. That a man would dare summon such a deity on prime-time American television during the age of Eisenhower is truly remarkable. That Ricardo got away with it for so many years is nothing short of miraculous. And it is highly unlikely he would have been able to do so without the expressed assistance of Babalu Aye himself.
It is just this type of high magic that the show Babalu, which opens for a weekend run at the Arsht Center this Thursday, hopes to revive. And considering that two of the principal performers are related by blood to the great Cuban-American bandleader, and the rest of the participants are certainly related in spirit, it's a cinch this blast through the hallowed past will do just that.
Lucie Arnaz, daughter of the I Love Lucy stars, is the driving force behind Babalu. It was she who safeguarded her father Desi's old orchestra charts in the Library of Congress way back when, and it was she who spearheaded their resurrection. As she explains, it was a resurrection that was a long time coming.
"In a nutshell, I really wanted to do a show about this kind of music for 22 years," she recently says by phone from her Fairfield County, Connecticut home. "After my father passed away, I put a nightclub act together, and I was inspired to do that from a cassette he'd left behind. There were songs that I'd never heard before — they weren't on the I Love Lucy show, they weren't anywhere, because they were songs that he'd done in the '30s and ''40s before he got on I Love Lucy. They were the original big-band charts — just fantastic music — and it inspired me to do what I do now onstage."
The story continues some years later, when Lucie Arnaz was performing in an Ira Gershwin tribute at the 92nd Street Y in New York. The discussion turned to great orchestral arrangements no longer in use, and colleagues at the great cultural institution asked her what had become of those belonging to her father.
"I told them that I had them for decades and that I'd eventually given them to the Library of Congress. And they asked if we'd perhaps be interested in taking those charts and doing an evening celebrating Latin music, but just seen through some of the music of the Desi Arnaz Orchestra," she recalls. "I thought, Oh my God, this is a fabulous idea. I would love to do this."
Once the Y gave her the nod, she recruited Miami native and four-time Grammy nominee Raul Esparza; stage great Valarie Pettiford; Lucie's brother, Desi Arnaz Jr.; and a 15-piece orchestra. The tribute show wowed everyone within earshot, including a certain set of Miami ears.
"Some people from the Arsht Center were there and they saw it, and they've been trying to get us to come down to Miami ever since," she says. "And when the dates became available that Raul and Valarie and I were all free, we said, 'You know what? Let's do it. How fabulous would it be to do this show in Miami?' So here we come."
And how. As mentioned, joining her is brother Desi Jr., whose original guest appearance soon became a running star spot throughout the entire show.
"My brother was originally going to play percussion on a few songs in the second act," Lucie says, laughing. "But he was having so much fun in rehearsals he kind of hid in the back and played throughout the whole first act!"
Desi Jr. agrees with this account, albeit with some extras. "Actually, what happened is that I was in New York a couple days before they started rehearsal with the big band," he says, "and so I helped out playing the piano while Raul, Valarie, and Lucie sang the songs. And since I was there from the beginning, it kind of just made sense that I'd stay involved throughout."
Still, the show really belongs to his sister and the other principal players, he insists. "Originally, she just asked me to appear and play on a few songs," he says. "There are three percussionists — a drummer, another percussionist, and me — and we kind of take turns playing the different instruments."
Lucie says she was particularly grateful Raul Esparza joined those supporting players. "I didn't think he'd have time. I worked for two days composing an email," she says. "When he contacted me, he said he cried when he read my email. So you never know. I fully expected him to say, 'Thank you very much, but I'm busier than hell.' And he said, 'Thank you very much. I'm busier than hell, and I want to work this out.' It was great!"
Also joining the crew onstage are dancers Jeanette Delgado and Richard Amaro. So how does it all come together? As Lucie explains it, Babalu "is a little bit of a journey. You'll get a sense of how Latin music got here to the United States and became as famous as it is and what Desi Arnaz had to do with all that." And, as in the New York version of the show, it features a full orchestra, only this time largely made up of talent pooled from right here in town.
"There are so many good players in Miami," she says. "We'll have no problem re-creating the sound. You just say, 'Play the ink, fellas,' and they play it!"
When the ink those fellows are asked to play comes from one of the world's greatest bandleaders — and might just have been blessed by one of the most powerful deities in the cosmos — you can bet it will be played with aplomb. Add the topnotch talents of Lucie, Desi, Raul, and the rest, and Babalu is pretty much guaranteed to do for you what Desi did all along — deliver that old black magic as if it never went away.
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