October 23, 2008


Cuban exile's inspiring encore: Bebo Valdes, 90, a top pianist and bandleader during Havana's golden age of music, basks in the glory of his unlikely comeback. (Sebastian Rotella, October 23, 2008, LA Times)

In black-and-white photos from the 1950s, Dionisio Ramon Emilio "Bebo" Valdes has the sleek look of a Cuban Duke Ellington: pencil mustache, wide-shouldered suits. They called him Caballon, or big horse, because he was tall and dashing and the premier pianist, bandleader, arranger and composer in Havana.

Today, he's stooped and thinner. He drags his feet a bit. But he still has a towering presence, warm gray eyes and a gentlemanly, gregarious smile.

A conversation with Valdes is a voyage through the marvelous spectrum of music that has forged him: from Madrid to Harlem; from Debussy to Rachmaninoff; from Ernesto Lecuona, another Cuban pianist, to Chano Pozo, the wild percussionist who electrified Havana's legendary Tropicana nightclub when Valdes reigned there as musical director.

"He is the last man standing of the golden age of Cuban music," says Nat Chediak, his Miami-based producer and friend. "There is no one else left. He is the last master from the golden age."

Valdes has experienced enough triumph, tribulation and redemption for three or four lives. The Cuban Revolution set him adrift on the tides of exile. He washed up on the icy shores of Stockholm. He married a Swedish woman and settled into sedate anonymity, working in hotel lounges as a background pianist. Even listeners who noticed the brilliance of his elegant, understated style didn't realize he was the living ghost of a legend.

-Bebo Valdes' Long Musical Journey (Felix Contreras, January 19, 2006, All Things Considered)

Valdes says he never expected to be doing this much at his age. He was content just playing piano in Sweden.

"If you are a musician, and you do one thing, you should enjoy what you do," he says. "This is my profession and it is my hobby. And I live in love with what I do. In those years in Stockholm, even if I wasn't successful, I did it because I liked it. And I would keep doing it until I die."

The long road from Havana to Stockholm to Grammy winner started in Cuba in 1925, when he was 7 years old. Valdes says he was mesmerized by a pianist accompanying a dance orchestra.

-TORRENT: Bebo Valdes & Javier Colina Live @ Village Vanguard

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 23, 2008 7:49 AM
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