Around the World: Cuba’s Irakere

14 Feb

There have been great jazz musicians to come from Cuba — Paquita D’Rivera and Arturo Sandoval, to name two — and many of them have one thing in common: they apprenticed in the group Irakere.

Irakere was the creation of pianist Chuco Valdes (and D’Rivera), its longtime leader and son of bandleader Bebo Valdes. It has spawned not only D’Rivera and Sandoval, both of whom defected, but also bassist Carlos del Puerto, percussionist Oscar Valdes, drummer Enrique Pla and many more. The group combined American jazz with Cuban rhythms and instruments to produce a fusion sound popular the world over.

The band’s name means vegetation in the West African Yoruba language, and it has grown roots in the jazz world.

Said A.B. Spellman of the National Endowment for the Arts: “Cuban musical culture is so rich. No other country in the world understands rhythm like Cuba, and this rhythmic scope gives Irakere plenty of flexibility.”

The band was unable to perform in the U.S. until 1996 — more than 20 years after it produced its first album. It broke up almost a decade ago.

Percussionist Oscar Valdes: “(Irakere) is like a son I have raised. And I expected to grow old with that band . . . I felt great then – as a person and a musician. We were not just a band, we actually were a family.”

From a 1986 live performance in Peru:

Tuesday: Nat King Cole
Next Monday: Around the World in Music — Jamaica

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