NEW YORK -- In 1973, a group of mostly classically trained musicians formed a band that changed the direction of Cuba’s music and reached the American mainstream for the first time since the U.S. had severed diplomatic ties with the government of Fidel Castro in 1962. With a virtuoso technique, the group smashed together an explosive mix of traditional Cuban influences, Afro-Cuban rhythms, funk, jazz rock and classical.
It was fresh, it was uniquely Cuban, and it made people dance. The group would launch the careers of some of the most important figures in Latin jazz. In a nod to the African sounds that defined the group’s identity, they called the band “Irakere” -- a Yoruban word meaning “forest.”
“We wanted to create a jungle of sound,” leading Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés, who co-founded Irakere and directed the band for decades, told The Huffington Post. “When we formed Irakere, that was the moment that we separated from Cuban traditional music and became modern.”
The band became an institution, cycling through generations of Cuban musicians.
Valdés and his Afro-Cuban Messengers will play a concert Tuesday at the Town Hall titled “Irakere 40,” offering a tribute to the band more than four decades after its formation, as part of the World Music Institute’s Masters of Cuban Music series.
The band will release a live recording, "Chucho Valdés: Tribute to Irakere (Live in Marciac)" on Friday to coincide with the U.S. tour.
Tuesday’s performance, Valdés says, will offer a chance for a younger generation of musicians to give their own interpretation to Irakere’s foundational style.
“There’s 10 musicians in this band,” Valdés told HuffPost. “Of those 10, seven hadn’t been born yet when Irakere was founded. Two of them were only children. This is a tribute to a new generation.”
The big band performance will also mark a return to Valdés’ roots. Now 74 and having cemented an international reputation as one of the world’s most technically accomplished jazz pianists, Valdés in recent years has focused on performing a style of small ensemble Afro-Cuban jazz that channels the hard bop era of the 1960s.
Watch the original Irakere perform "Aguanile Bonco" below.
Valdés says he first started to imagine the musical style that would define Irakere when he was still a student. “I was thinking of the sounds of jazz, mixed with African music,” Valdés said. The ideas solidified as he began playing with percussionist Enrique Pla and bassist Orlando “Cachaito” López, along with trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera. “We were all thinking in the same terms,” Valdés said.
It’s hard to imagine a more symbolic time to pay tribute to Irakere’s pioneering work with a U.S. tour. Cuba and the United States share intertwined histories and a long tradition of reciprocal music influence. When discussing his musical influences, Valdés is as likely to mention Cuban classical pianist Ernesto Lecuona or bandleader Arsenio Rodríguez as he is to talk about jazz masters like Art Tatum or Thelonious Monk.
But the Cold War largely isolated Cuban musicians from the United States. With the severance of U.S. diplomatic relations and the advent of the U.S. trade embargo against the island in the early 1960s, Cuban musicians largely lost the ability to record in the United States, and only the most dedicated promoters attempted to arrange concerts that needed to comply with a raft of restrictions that carried the risk of last-minute cancellations if the State Department declined to approve Cuban visa applications.
Irakere was one of the few Cuban bands of the 1970s to make it into the U.S. mainstream. After a series of complicated negotiations with both governments, Columbia managed to sign Irakere to a record deal in 1978 and bring the band to tour the United States. The money from the record deal went into a fund to support Cuban musicians touring the United States, since the embargo forbade Columbia from paying royalties to Cubans, according to Rolling Stone.
Watch Irakere perform on Puerto Rican television in a performance recorded in the 1980s.
While the United State helped propel the band to international stardom, it also symbolized political disagreements among the band’s founding generation. During a tour in Spain in 1980, D’Rivera defected. He went on to build an illustrious solo career in the United States.
Sandoval left Irakere to start a solo career in 1981 and defected to the United States as well in 1990, climbing to similar heights of commercial success in exile. Both D’Rivera and Sandoval are outspoken critics of the Castro brothers’ Communist government.
Valdés, on the other hand, remained in Cuba, where he built Irakere into an institution, cultivating generations of younger musicians, much in the tradition of jazz drummer and bandleader Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. (The name of Valdés' current band, the Afro-Cuban Messengers, is a nod to Blakey.)
Despite the logistical barriers, Valdés has visited the United States regularly over the last 30 years to perform. But playing in U.S. venues this time around has been made much easier because of the historic restoration of formal diplomatic relations initiated by President Barack Obama and Cuban head of state Raúl Castro on Dec. 17.
“It was incredibly easier to bring the Cuban musicians over,” World Music Institute Artistic Director Par Neiburger told HuffPost. “At this point, it was no more difficult than to bring anyone else than from any other country.”
For the moment, Valdés says there are no plans to reunite the group’s founding members.
“Each one of us took our own path,” Valdés says of his former bandmates. “We all have had amazing careers. It’s very difficult for us to reunite. So what I think is more beautiful is to do something with new musicians, with a new generation.”
Chucho Valdés picks five must-hear Cuban songs
HuffPost asked Valdés to name five songs that everyone needs to hear in order to understand Cuban music. The first, "El Manisero," is perhaps the most covered song in the Cuban repertoire, and the melody will be familiar to many American listeners -- though this recording by Valdés offers an unusual interpretation. "Tres Lindas Cubanas" is a classic danzón, a traditional style of Cuban dance music. "Dile a Catalina" was written by Arsenio Rodríguez, one of the greatest exponents of the mambo. Bebo Valdés, Chucho's father and his first piano instructor, penned "Mayajigua." The last song, "Mambo Inn," is by Afro-Cuban jazz pioneer Mario Bauzá.
Though Valdés said five can't begin to scratch the surface, they help give an idea of what Cuban music is all about. “It’s very difficult,” Valdés said. “Imagine, there’s so many. But these are characteristic of the purity of Cuban music.”
Listen to the selections below.