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Having just celebrated his 80th birthday, a time when many people would choose to sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labor, Cuban pianist, composer and bandleader Jesús “Chucho” Valdés is pushing forward with the most ambitious work of his career.
La Creación (The Creation) — commissioned by the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami — is a three-movement suite for small ensemble, voices and big band that tells the history of creation according to the Regla de Ocha, the Afro-Cuban religion known as Santería. It was scheduled to premiere at the Arsht Center on November 5 and be presented the following weeks in Lyon, Paris and Barcelona.
To help orchestrate, perform and conduct this work, Valdés summoned pianist, composer, arranger, producer and music director John Beasley, leader of the 15-piece MONK’estra big band, and Toronto-based Cuban pianist, composer, arranger, bandleader and conductor Hilario Durán. An old friend and collaborator, Durán has arranged Valdés’ work for more than 30 years. He calls La Creación “monumental.”
The themes in the new work, most notably the affirmation of African culture in the culture of the Americas, from music and language to spiritual beliefs, and the choice of instruments to explore them — from the trio of hourglass-shaped batá drums, essential in the ritual music of Santería, to the big band — have been recurrent concerns and musical strategies in Valdés’ career.
“This work is a summation of everything I have learned and also my experiments, because, as I’ve learned, I also have experimented a lot,” says Valdés. “This is a synthesis of all that. I had this music, this confluence of blues and Afro-Cuban music, in my head since I was a music student. I’ve arrived at a moment of full maturity, personally and musically, and now I feel prepared to do this.”
As the son of Ramón “Bebo” Valdés, an influential pianist, arranger and bandleader in Cuba’s musical Golden Age of the 1940s and ’50s, Chucho had, as he’s fond of saying, “the best teacher at home.” But he also studied formally at the Conservatorio Municipal de Música de la Habana, from which he graduated at 14. And then there was another “school” in his neighborhood that proved crucial to his education.
“In the house across the street from my house, there was a santero [Santería priest] and they were beating drums and singing for santo [a saint or deity],” he recalls. “They didn’t want anyone [not in their group] to be there. But the house had a basement, and I would go and hide there to listen. There was garbage, it was a mess, but I didn’t care, when I started listening to those songs … ,” he says, his voice trailing off. “I was a kid, and this was happening while I was studying Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin at the conservatory,” he laughs heartily. “But this was different; it felt different, I felt it in my bones. From then on, I tried to listen and inform myself on my own.”
It was the music that, many years later, as an adult, got Valdés interested in the religion.
Santería is a rich, complex system of beliefs that evokes Greek mythology in its pantheon of imperfect deities and their stories. Each god, or “saint,” as they took on a Catholic counterpart, is addressed with a particular set of ritual drum-and-voice pieces. It is extraordinary music, spiritual and earthy, exquisitely detailed and exact, yet muscular and driven. “It was despised,” says Valdés. “I remember it well. It was a ‘cosa de negros,’ a Black thing, meaning a thing of low-class, illiterate, brute people. Playing Santería [music] was not well seen — and it was really our identity. People did it almost clandestinely. When [singer] Merceditas Valdés sang it publicly on the radio for the first time [in 1944], for some people, it was shocking — and 30 years later, it happened to us, to Irakere. People would say: ‘What is Chucho doing? Why is he doing that?’ This was in the ’70s, and we had a struggle.”
Valdés debuted professionally as the pianist in his father’s orchestra, Sabor de Cuba; worked in the pit orchestra of the Teatro Musical de la Habana, and was selected to be part of Orquesta Cubana de Musica Moderna, a genuine all-star big band. In 1973, taking with him bandmates from the Orquesta such as Paquito D’Rivera and Arturo Sandoval, Valdés founded Irakere, an 11-piece little big band whose brand of Afro-Cuban, jazz and rock fusion marked a before and after in modern Cuban music. In Irakere, a superb jazz group and killer dance band all wrapped in one, Valdés incorporated batá drums, ritual rhythms and chanting, and developed adventurous pieces such as his “Misa Negra” (Black Mass), an early milestone in his career.
Bebo Valdés had been a visionary, bringing batá drums into the big band. Two decades later, Chucho Valdés put them front and center in jazz and dance music.
La Creación is heir to and, arguably, a natural conclusion to a path marked by works such as “Misa Negra” early on and “Canto a Dios,” a more recent composition for orchestra.
“La Creación is about Olódùmarè, the Creator in the Yoruba religion of Nigeria,” Valdés explains. “He is the great deity that creates humankind, nature, everything. I wanted to take it to a story in music: the story of the creation of Olódùmarè. It was a very big challenge. You have to know the history well, how those African roots then develop in the Caribbean and America — including, of course, Cuba, the United States, Brazil — and develop it through music.”
The three-part suite “opens with the drums playing the ritual toques [pieces] and calling on Olódùmarè and telling the story of how everything was created.” Arranged and orchestrated by Durán, “these are ritual chants, but mixed with other elements to give it a contemporary sound,” Valdés says. “This is not a folkloric thing. We have the African roots, yes, but with a reminder that this was made now, in the 21st century. So, you have batás, electronics and electric keyboards. The second movement, arranged by Beasley, is the blues, the blues with the big band, and references Miles Davis, but also the batá drums.” The third movement brings back the Caribbean feeling and the main theme of the piece.
“This is a summary of all the experiences up to today,” he says, accent on “today.” “But only up to this very moment. We are working on something … ,” he says with a Cheshire cat smile. “I’m just coming into my second adolescence.” - Fernando González