Born Israel López on September 14, 1918, in Havana, Cuba. Addresses: Record company--EMI Latin, 21700 Oxnard Street, Suite 200, Woodland Hills, CA 91367, website: http://www.emilatin.com; Orfeon Records, Privada de Horacio No. 10, Col. Chapultepec Morales, C.P. 11560 Mexico D.F., website: http://www.orfeon.com.

In many respects, the career of Israel "Cachao" López embodies the story of Latin music in the twentieth century. Formally trained to perform European-influenced danzón pieces popular in Cuba in the 1930s, the prodigy soon contributed to the development of the Afro-Cuban style of mambo, co-writing the first song with his brother under that title in 1938. López performed with the Orquesta Arcaño y sus Maravillas during the 1940s and 1950s when Cuba reigned as the musical--not to mention Mafia--playground of North America. After fleeing Cuba in 1962, López performed in a number of Latin bands, settling down in Las Vegas for a time. Feeling the need to live among his fellow expatriates, López relocated to Miami's Cuban community where he was reduced to playing at weddings to make a living. With the revival of interest in Latin music in the 1990s, however, López made a triumphant return to the public eye. With an acclaimed documentary, Grammy Award, and both critical and commercial success, López has continued to be an innovator, mentor, and above all else, superlative musician.

The youngest child in a musical family, López earned the nickname "Cachao" from a family surname, although the term as a variant of the word cachondeo, meaning jokester, also seemed to fit his personality. The López family produced a number of musical talents--sometimes said to number over 50 bassists in the immediate family alone--and both of López's parents, in addition to his older brother and sister, played the bass. During his childhood, the family drew audiences to its home in Havana during daily rehearsal sessions; López supplemented this experience with formal training in piano and composition. At the age of 12, López became a member of the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra, although this was not his first professional experience. For a number of years, López had been providing background music for silent films in the movie theaters of Havana with the Bola de Nieve Ensemble.

Helped Develop New Latin Sound

With the demise of silent movies, López played more often with dance orchestras to make a living, joining the lineup of the Orquesta Arcaño y sus Maravillas in 1937. Popular in Cuba in the first decades of the twentieth century, the orquesta típica most often played danzón pieces with the emphasis on violin, brass, and timpani drums. By the time of López's arrival on the scene, however, the danzón had gradually moved away from it roots in European military-style marching music and adopted a more Africanized sound with syncopated percussion. Around the time that López joined the Orquesta Arcaño y sus Maravillas, the orchestra had taken this development a step further, integrating the danzón with the pulsating conga. The resulting style, with its heavy rhythmic beat, proved enduringly popular with dance audiences. Capitalizing on its popularity, López and his brother Orestes wrote an estimated 3,000 danzónes, one of which, 1938's Mambo, used a slower rhythm than typically used in a danzón. Over time, the new style would develop into its own distinct musical style, taking its name from the López brothers' composition. In the 1950s, mambo reigned supreme as the preeminent Latin musical style, so popular that it became almost synonymous with Latin music itself.

Descargas Recordings and Exile

Staying with the Orquesta Arcaño y sus Maravillas as a bassist, composer, and arranger until 1949, López joined a number of Cuban musical reviews and theater orchestras in the 1950s. He also played with the José Fajardo Orchestra in the mid-1950s, where he played mambo pieces along with songs in the newly popular cha-cha-cha style. By now acknowledged as one of Cuba's leading musicians, López began his first series of recordings in the late 1950s with a group of colleagues who assembled for informal jam sessions in the early morning hours after their professional appearances were done. Known as descargas, or discharges, the gatherings allowed the musicians to experiment with several different styles of music, from mambo to jazz. The first result of these descarga sessions was released in 1957, with several additional albums issued throughout the early 1960s. The releases gained an international audience, and López was in great demand for dates around the world. Leaving for a stint with the Ernesto Duarte Orchestra in Spain in 1962, however, would turn out to be the beginning of López's exile from Cuba.

With the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Fidel Castro instituted a socialist government that abhorred the capitalist--and specifically, American--influences that had controlled much of the country's resources. Before long, the image of Havana as the hangout of American organized crime figures and pleasure-seeking vacationers was replaced by calls for a permanent socialist revolution under anti-capitalist slogans often directed at the United States. Obviously, the hotels, theaters, and nightclubs where López had played to Cuba's elite and international tourists would no longer be in business. With the government's control of all of Cuba's media outlets, it was also questionable whether artistic freedom under the new government would be guaranteed. Like many other members of Cuba's artistic community, López decided not to return to Castro's rule.

Fortunately, López's international reputation meant that he was able to secure work with a number of leading Latin music groups in the 1960s, including the Charlie Palmieri Band and the Tito Rodriguez Orchestra. López also rejoined the José Fajardo Orchestra, which had reestablished itself in the United States after the Cuban Revolution. Spending most of the 1960s in New York City, López began a long-running series of engagements in Las Vegas in 1970, working with the Latin Fire Company. Over the next decade, López played at several of the city's most famous reviews, doing shows at the MGM, Sahara, and Tropicana hotels. In 1978, however, López decided to leave Las Vegas. Feeling alienated in the community, he longed to be around other Cuban émigrés. Yet his move to Miami was a difficult one for his career, and for the next few years, López's professional engagements often including playing at wedding parties.

Latin Music Revival

López's journey back to popular recognition began with an encounter with Cuban-born actor Andy Garcia in 1989. Garcia had been a fan of López's since buying one of his records as a child. After meeting his musical idol, Garcia assembled a tribute concert that took place in Miami in July of 1992. Garcia also put together a documentary of López's career, including footage of the tribute concert, that appeared under the title Cachao: Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos (or Cachao: Like His Rhythm There Is No Other). Not only was the documentary critically acclaimed, it also helped usher in a new interest in Latin music throughout America and Europe. Together with Emilio Estefan, Jr.--husband of Gloria Estefan and founder of the Miami Sound Machine of the 1970s and 1980s--Garcia capitalized on the renewed interest in López by producing his first original album in several years. The result, Master Sessions Volume I, was another critical success. Including some traditional Cuban songs along with three descargas, the Master Sessions album earned the Grammy Award for Best Tropical Latin Performance for 1994. A follow-up album, Master Sessions Volume II, appeared in 1995, and López's music was heard in the films The Birdcage, Dance With Me, and The Associate as well.

As an octogenarian, López continues to be an active composer and arranger. In 2000, his new work, "Mambo Mass," debuted at Los Angeles' St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church. Using the ritual of the Catholic Mass as its structure, the piece integrated elements of mambo, opera, and classical music. López also continues to be a celebrated concert performer with his latest band, a 15-member orchestra with Garcia making guest appearances on the bongo drums. After one such appearance, the Los Angeles Times commented that "The ever-youthful López never ceases to surprise" with his energetic playing and obvious love of music. López also returned to the recording studio for another original album in 2000, which resulted in the release of Cuba Linda, "a crisp, invigorating set," according to a Los Angeles Times reviewer. López's legacy also includes the rising star of his nephew, Orlando "Cachaito" López, son of his brother Orestes. Remaining in Cuba with his family during the Castro years, Cachaito's bass playing had given him a reputation almost as formidable as his uncle's. With the gradual opening of Cuba once again to the outside world, international audiences have come to appreciate another generation of the bass-playing López family.

by Timothy Borden

Israel "Cachao" López's Career

Joined Havana Philharmonic Orchestra, age 12; developed mambo style of music in Cuba, late 1930s; recorded several descarga albums, late 1950s-early 1960s; worked in Las Vegas, NV, 1970s; moved to Miami, enjoyed revival of popularity, 1990s.

Israel "Cachao" López's Awards

Grammy Award, Best Tropical Latin Performance, 1994.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

February 13, 2005: Lopez won the Grammy Award for best traditional tropical album for Ahora Si!. Source: Grammys.com, www.grammys.com/awards/grammy/47winners, February 14, 2005.

November 3, 2005: Lopez won the Latin Grammy award for best traditional tropical album for Ahora Si! Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com/2005/SHOWBIZ/Music/11/04/latin.grammys.list.ap/index.html, November 10, 2005.

Further Reading

Sources

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Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 7 years ago

I miss my great grandfather very much,He was a great talented person. Hopefully one day I can be just like him. Daddy if you read this I would like to meet you and tell you all the things and places me and grandpa shared. Please email me your son Johnathen Manuel Vega hopefully we will soon speak

over 8 years ago

hector if you read this , please get in contact with me please,Im your mother and I love you very much.If it will do you any good with the only pain your granfather died was because he wanna see you, you know by a fact he love you very much . I need you my cell is 786- 2819821 and the house is 305- 6449852. please get in touch with me, so a least you cut go where your granfather is resting in peace,I would love to meet my new grandson we all commit mistakes sometimes in our lives your mother maria elena

over 8 years ago

Hector...you grandfather adored you. I remember seeing you guys walking to my dad's hardware store on Flagler and 52nd...he had a glow when he was next to you. I also loved Cachao not for who he was musically but as that pudgy grandfather of my classmate that always through his arm around me whenever he saw me and asked how my mom and dad were doing. As I progressed in the business we never neglected to give each other a hug and I would ask how you were doing and he would again ask me about my mom & dad. We will all miss him. Hope you are doing well Hector. Your beloved grandfather loved you no matter what. Ronald (Ronnie) Gonzalez

about 9 years ago

My grandfather was a great parent,friend,and loved one.No words could ever truly describe what a tremendous person he is.He and my grandmother who were married for 58 years taught me everything that is good in this world.His musical talent is unmatched,and that pales in comparison to Cachao, the human being.I only hope that in the time i have left on this earth i can be 1% of the person he was his whole life.His great-grandson Jakobi Daniel Vega will learn all about his grandfather,and hopefully he will strive to be like him.Striving to be like him...........what a great world we would be in.Grandfather,Grandmother,I love you both very much,I WILL NEVER FORGET YOU.I only hope you can forgive me for the hard things you put up with me while i was growing up.i will see you soon my beloved family.I LOVE YOU. .......WITH ALL MY LOVE,YOUR GRANDSON HECTOR LUIS VEGA,AND YOUR GREAT-GRANDSON JAKOBI, BENDICIONES PARA USTEDES