Sep. 14, 1918-Mar. 22, 2008
Cuban bassist and composer


Israel Lopez, better known as "Cachao," has left an unmistakable mark on modern music. The creator of the mambo, the musical style swept Cuba in the 1940s and later captured the hearts of Americans, Lopez also put together legendary improvisational jam sessions in Havana during the 1950s. The results blended traditional and popular Cuban music with contemporary American jazz techniques and style. "Playing our music for Hispanic and Anglo ears is a chance to unite the Hispanic and Anglo cultures," Lopez told Gigi Anders for the Washington Post (September 14, 1994). "Music is the closest way to reach all people. A world without music would not be possible. It's our spiritual artery. It lifts us, makes us feel better." "To listen to Cachao is to hear a virtuoso of rhythm, and a charismatic one at that," Peter Watrous wrote for the New York Times (December 20, 1991). "He's the type of musician whose presence makes the rest of the band play better."

Israel Lopez was born on September 14, 1918 in Guanabacoa, Cuba, located on the outskirts of Havana. He was the youngest of three children in a very musical family. His father, Pedro Lopez, his mother, and his siblings all played piano and bass, and there were more than 40 musicians in the extended family. The Lopez family would rehearse every day, drawing large crowds to their house, which was the birthplace of the Cuban patriot Jose Marti. "Our house was a wreck, with instruments everywhere," Lopez told Peter Watrous. "I studied with my father … and my [older] brother, Orestes Lopez, and when they couldn't teach me, my uncle, my aunt, my mother taught me," he recalled to Howard Reich for the Chicago Tribune (December 17, 1995). "Everybody in the family taught me—I could not escape it." At the age of eight, Lopez joined a children's group the Conjunto Bellamar, as a bongo player. When he was older he studied at the local music conservatory and took private lessons in piano, composition, and harmonics from the famous Cuban organist Luis Gonzalez. However, he never abandoned his favorite instrument, the stringed bass. "It's the most important instrument," he told Gigi Anders. "The foundation. There has to be a beat. An orchestra without bass cannot speak. Just like a building, without an underlying structure, falls. It's a rhythmic, accompanying instrument that carries the beat for all kinds of music. The ear always searches for it, and once it's perceived you relax."

By 1927 Lopez was helping to provide background music for silent films as a member of the Bola de Nieve Ensemble. "Every time there were gunshots," he explained to Anders, "I had to go powpowpow, to imitate the sound with my bass. In the Tarzan ones, I went pom-pom-pom-pom, to express the elephants' steps. It was hard, because you had to study the on-screen movements carefully, to be synchronized with the music." When talking pictures arrived in 1930, Lopez lost his job and moved into Havana. There, he played bass with several bands, mostly playing danzones, late-19th-century Cuban dance and instrumental music that had its origins in 18th-century Europe. Because of his family's financial troubles, at 12 Lopez quit school to work with the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra, standing on top of a soapbox in order to be the same height as his colleagues in the bass section.

In 1937 Lopez became a member of the Arcano Orchestra, where he joined his older brother, Orestes Lopez. Within a year the Lopez brothers had created the beginnings of the mambo sound. "Orestes and I wanted to give a spin to our music," Lopez told Anders. "Turn it around a little, 180 degrees from what it was. So we made some modifications, while always respecting the tradition. The idea was to give a bit more velocity to the old style." A variation on the danzon, the mambo feature a quicker tempo and lasts longer as well. At first, dancers rejected the new sound as too fast. When the Lopez brothers slowed the beat slightly, a craze was born. In 1939 Israel Lopez recorded the first mambo. "The world 'mambo' comes from the people of the Congo, from certain tribes in Africa," he explained to Reich. "It was a little syncopated song that they would sing to the children to put them to sleep… . And every one of these little songs had a little different story, almost like a nursery rhyme, which African people knew since they were children. And that was the inspiration for our 'Mambo,' although what we created was very different from their mambos." Over the next decade, the Lopez brothers wrote around 3,000 danzones, which dominated the repertoire of the Arcano Orchestra. At one point, a group of thieves stole the orchestra's dance book, and the brothers had to write 28 danzones a week in order to re-create it. In addition to his work with the Arcano Orchestra, Israel Lopez was also playing with the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra as well as several radio bands.

In 1949 Lopez left the Arcano Orchestra. For the next decade, he played with various theater orchestras and traveling music revues, save for a one-year stint with the Jose Fajardo Orchestra, from 1953 to 1954. In the 1950s Cubans danced to the rhythms of guarchas and cha-chas; adding that music to his repertoire, Lopez continued to meet with success. He also began late-night informal improvisational sessions; they took place at around four in the morning, after the clubs had closed. By 1957 these sessions, known as descargas, were becoming major events, and before long other musicians were holding their own sessions. Lopez and other top musicians recorded several of these sessions in the studio, thus preserving an incredible mix of Cuban musicians fusing their style with jazz techniques. "When the 'Descargas' started out," the bassist told Reich, "the idea wasn't anything more than to just get all the best musicians in the studio and just jam. They all knew each other, and they were all pretty much doing straight [non-jazz] gigs. And what happened was that as people started coming in, everybody got inspired, and they started getting pretty serious about this, and we wound up having some pretty tremendous sessions. The sessions were so informal and so unstructured that the tapes actually sat around for a couple of years before someone came along, heard them and decided to release them. And it turned out they were important, because … here [in Cuba] the Latin musicians were able to show that they, too, were part of the tradition of improvisation and inspiration."

In 1962 Lopez left Cuba to play in Spain with the Ernesto Duarte Orchestra. After an initially chilly reception the group toured Spain for a year and a half. Toward the end of 1963, Lopez moved to New York City and played the Palladium Ballroom with the Jose Fajardo Orchestra. Over the next seven years, he played with several bands in New York, among them the Pacheco, Tito Rodriguez, and Machito orchestras. With the Tito Rodriguez Orchestra, he toured several Latin American nations. The mambo craze had died down in the United States by then, and to support himself, his wife, and his daughter, Lopez often had to perform at birthday parties, weddings, and in restaurants. "I have always been happy to play wherever I could," he told Anders. "I saw no future in it, but we had to live somehow." In 1970 Lopez left New York for Las Vegas, Nevada, with the Latin Fire Company. He worked there for nine years with Pupi Campo, at Caesar's Palace. He also worked at the MGM, the Sahara, and the Tropicana hotels, playing the acoustic bass, the baby bass, and the fender bass.

In 1978 Las Vegas's hot weather, his asthma, his difficulties with English, and the temptation to gamble led Lopez to move to Miami, Florida. He spent the next several years playing in relative obscurity outside the Cuban community. He returned to the spotlight after the actor Andy Garcia, a longtime admirer of Lopez's music and a fellow Cuban, arranged to film a Miami concert featuring the bassist in July 1992. On January 16, 1993 Lopez sold out Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Garcia then released his documentary on Lopez, Cachao … Like His Rhythm There Is No Other (1993). "I certainly never expected anything like this," Lopez told Reich. "I am a musician. I never dreamed I would be in movies." The film led to the first new Lopez albums in 20 years Master Sessions Volume I (1994) and Master Sessions Volume II (1995). In March 1995 Cachao earned a Grammy Award for Master Sessions, Volume I.

Lopez is known for his modesty, charm and sense of humor. "With music, I'm generating happiness and good humor 24 hours a day…," he told Gigi Anders for the Washington Post; "I've been laughing and cracking jokes since I was a baby, even in my sleep." In 1995 he received the National Heritage Fellowship Award. "You know, the money may come and the money may go," he told Anders. "For me, what counts most is the preservation of our roots, to have something beautiful and real to pass on to the next generation." Lopez lives in Miami.

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