Israel 'Cachao' Lopez: Bassist and pioneer of mambo

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The Independent Online

The bassist and composer Israel López played a leading role in the evolution of Latin music, successively nurturing both the mambo and the improvised Cuban form known as the descarga, and paving the way for the international phenomenon that is salsa. Known invariably by the nickname "Cachao", he was, too, an innovative arranger; one who successfully synthesised his own country's musical traditions with those emanating from the American mainland to create an alluring sound which continues to seduce those who encounter it.

López was born the youngest of three children in Havana in 1918. The family home had formerly belonged to the Cuban patriot José Martí and each January had to be opened to the public. There was a strong musical tradition within the family – Cachao later estimated that 40 of his relatives had been bassists – and he was initially taught to play by his mother. He played bongos in the Conjunto Bellamar at eight, worked briefly as an accompanist to silent movies and, at the age of 12, made his début as a contrabass player with the Orquesta Filarmónica de La Habana, eventually performing under guest conductors including Stravinsky and Villa-Lobos.

In 1937 he and his brother Orestes joined the flautist Antonio Arcaño Betancourt's Orquestra Arcaño y sus Maravillas, an outfit that specialised in the popular, if staid, danzónes. The work of the López brothers during their 12 years with the group invigorated Cuban music. At one point thieves stole the orchestra's songbook and the brothers were forced to compose new pieces at the rate of 28 per week to compensate. It is estimated that they wrote some 3,000 numbers in all, one of which, the syncopated "Mambo" of 1939, set the tone for the mambo craze that swept the United States in the 1940s – though Cachao was himself quick to acknowledge the role played by the bandleader Pérez Prado in the popularisation of the form.

López left the Orquestra Arcaño in 1949 and played in travelling revues until 1953 at which time he joined José Fajardo's band. Whilst with Fajardo he developed his repertoire to encompass the craze for the cha cha cha and cemented his reputation as the pre-eminent bassist in Cuba.

In 1957 he became involved in a series of jam sessions that would in time prove hugely influential on the burgeoning Latin music scene in New York. Now known as the "Cachao descargas", these informal sessions took place during the early hours when the musicians involved had finished their respective club dates. Largely improvisatory, they featured renowned performers such as Guillermo Barretto, Yeyo Iglesias, the great trumpet player Alejandro "El Negro" Vivar and Cachao himself, and were issued on a clutch of LPs.

In June 1962 Cachao left Cuba for Spain where he toured for 18 months. At the Palladium Ballroom in New York, he successively performed with Charlie Palmieri, Mongo Santamaria, his old friends José Fajardo and Alejandro Vivar, and the popular mambo orchestras of Tito Rodriguez and Machito. Whilst with Rodriguez he appeared on the seminal album Big Band Latino (1965). On the opening track "Esta es mi Orquesta" the leader, uniquely, took the time to introduce his band in turn and paid full tribute to his bassist: "The strongest column in the rhythm section of a band is the bass. It is with great honour and pride that we introduce to you our bass player: from Havana, Cuba, Israel López, Cachao."

Over the ensuing years López recorded prolifically, cutting an album alongside the legendary Arsenio Rodriguez and issuing a fine series of descargas discs including Descargas at the Village Gate – Live (1966), Cachao y su Descargas Vol 1 (1977) and a second volume, Dos (1977), with its cover painting of a Cuban street scene by the musician Henry Fiol.

Lured by a compulsive gambling habit that almost ruined him, he lived for a while in Las Vegas until his wife was able to prise him away from the city. As a performer, he regularly demonstrated his versatility by playing not only the acoustic bass, but also its electric and "baby" cousins, and emerged, too, as a hero to many non-Latin musicians, notably Jaco Pastorius, who regularly cited him as the greatest bassist in the world.

By the early 1980s López had settled with family members in the Miami area. He spent much of the next decade in near obscurity, playing at weddings and working with the local charanga outfit, Hansel y Raúl. In 1992, however, his career was resurrected by the actor Andy García, who produced a documentary on the musician, Cachao . . . Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos (Cachao . . . Like His Rhythm, There Is No Other).

A García-produced album the following year, Master Sessions, Volume One, featured excellent contributions from "Chocolate" Armenteros, Nelson Gonzalez and Jimmy Bosch and won a Grammy; a second volume received further acclaim. Cachao's bass playing also served to anchor Gloria Estefan's enormously successful Spanish-language disc, Mi Tierra (1993), an album that to date has sold over eight million copies.

Although not featured on the 1997 Buena Vista Social Club project that re-ignited international interest in Cuban music, an instrumental he penned many years ago gave the album its name. Fittingly, his nephew, Orlando "Cachaito" López, played bass on many of the Buena Vista Social Club spin-offs and has emerged as a star of world music in his own right. Cachao's collaboration with Bebo and Patato Valdés, El Arte Del Sabor, landed him another Grammy in 2003, as did the disc ¡Ahora Si! (2004).

Last year, this modest and likable man belatedly made his British début, playing at the Barbican as part of the annual Latin music festival La Linea.

Paul Wadey

Israel López, bassist, composer and bandleader: born Havana 14 September 1918; married 1946 Ester Buenaventura (died 2004; one daughter); died Coral Gables, Florida 22 March 2008.