The legendary Cachao, credited with giving Cuban music its swinging bass line, sits at Versailles sipping a cortadito made just how he likes it - evaporated milk and Splenda. There isn't a server here who would get it wrong.
He's trying to tell you about his earliest days at the upright bass, when he was 9 and had to stand on a crate to reach the thing.
"You know [legendary Cuban pianist and singer] Bola de Nieve? I accompanied him in the silent movies. It was just the pictures and our music, " he says in his soft rasp.
But he can't finish the story about the beginnings of a career that is now, remarkably, reaching the 80-year mark. The early lunch crowd raises cafecitos in salute, they wave, they come over to shake his hand. Some call him Señor Cachao. Most say Maestro.
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Israel "Cachao" Lopez, 87, acknowledges the irony with a gentle smile. There have been upswings and downswings. Friday he performs at the James L. Knight. On June 24, he will be honored at Carnegie Hall. But it wasn't long ago that he was just another aging exile here at aging exile central. He drank his cortaditos and kept to himself the fact that he helped create the mambo and later instigated the descarga, or jam session, the thing that gave Cuban musicians license to burn the house down.
He was a musician's musician whose entire family played and who moved with ease between the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra and dozens of bands that played the popular sound of the day. He and his brother Orestes Lopez rushed that sound toward the future in 1937 when they started toying with the starched danzón - an elegant form of Cuban music that dates to the late 1800s that was composed in three sections; they sped up and syncopated the third part, but at first, few dancers could follow. "We called that part mambo. That was la parte sabrosa (the tasty part). My brother and I would say to each other, 'Mambea, mambea ahí, ' which meant to add swing to that part."
A couple of years ago, a journalist traveled to Cuba and brought back the original sheet music of the Lopez brothers' first mambo. It hangs in Cachao's living room now. The only lyrics, in Cachao's hand: "Mambo, mambo, mambo, sabroso mambo."
In 1962, politics made him drag himself to the Havana airport to leave the island for good. He had to lie to his only daughter about where he was going that afternoon. Maria Elena was only 9. Her mother had left a couple of years before to lay the groundwork to get her family to New York. Cachao had tried to leave Maria Elena behind once before, in 1961. But she had cried so hard at the airport, he turned around and ran back home. Which is why the second time, he left without a word. "Imagine how hard it was, " Cachao says, staring down at his cortadito. "It was harder for her mother than for me. But I couldn't stay in Cuba. We knew we had to leave to get her out later. We just didn't know how long it would take."
Buenaventura, Cachao's wife of 58 years (everybody called her Estelle for reasons Cachao himself can't explain), died last year. She was only 15 or 16 when she swooned for one of Cachao's danzones at a party. But when she asked to meet the composer, she wasn't impressed. "She thought I was too fat. She didn't like me. But we became friends and a couple of years later I asked for her hand, " Cachao says with a chuckle.
After Buenaventura's death, daughter Maria Elena, now a grandmother herself, moved from the Bronx to live with her dad. They share an unassuming two-bedroom apartment in a new building off Calle Ocho in Coral Gables. Cachao's five Grammys sit on the entertainment center above the TV. But mostly they serve to prop up snapshots of Cachao's two grandsons. Says Maria Elena, who finally got out of Cuba in 1967: "As many times as I have seen him play, every time he is on stage, I cry. To see a musician so surrendered to his art is incredible. Whether it was a baby shower or Carnegie Hall, he played with the same emotion."
What's strangely missing from Cachao's place is his instrument. "I don't need a bass at home. I rent them, " he says. "It's hard to drag it around the airports at my age. The one I bought in 1930 for $30, I recently sold to a collector for $25,000. It was easier not to have it. Insuring it cost $2,000 a year. And I really don't need to practice any more."
Cachao delivered his delicious thump, thump, thump to New York's Latin jazz scene in 1964, after two years in Spain. Later he played endless Las Vegas orchestra pits. But by 1978, Buenaventura had put her foot down, demanding they move to Miami to get Cachao away from the gaming tables. He was hooked on blackjack and roulette, burning through thousands of dollars while scratching his head about fellow entertainers' casino habits.
"Frank Sinatra would arrive with Dean Martin, Sammy Davis and a mob of bodyguards. He would sit and listen to different bands I happened to be in, because he loved Cuban music. You had to play Siboney for him. Once he heard it, he got up and went to the tables. Liberace would play only the penny machine. And he would get really angry when he was losing. People around him would say, 'Take it easy, take it easy.' But he had just lost a whole dollar and he didn't care that he was a millionaire, it was a whole dollar."
Miami is where the baby showers came in. It may have been the closest thing to Havana, but it wasn't a city with much of a live music culture. Besides, times had changed. The mambo, even the descarga, had become part of the sepia-toned past.
But Cachao never complained. He put everything into being the anonymous sideman in a string of anonymous banquet hall bands.
"At least I never had to become a barber. I was still living from my music. And I never gambled again. The big lie about gambling is that you can win. Maybe for a little while, but in the end you always lose, " says Cachao, who admits he still buys the occasional lottery ticket. "I never spend more than $1."
What happened next everybody at Versailles knows. In the early 1990s, a Hollywood actor named Andy Garcia, a youngster who pined for an era he was too young to have lived through himself, yanked Cachao, one of his childhood idols, from obscurity with the help of another youngster named Emilio Estefan. In 1994, they released Israel "Cachao" Lopez Master Sessions, Volume I, on Estefan's Crescent Moon label. It helped spark new interest in the retro Cuban sound not just locally, but across the globe. "Those two, and Glorita, too, are like my children, " Cachao says.
Even before Master Sessions, Garcia was obsessed with the idea of making a movie based on Guillermo Cabrera Infante's Tres Tristes Tigres. Even then, he knew Cachao's music would play a big part the The Lost City, which opens April 28, and the soundtrack, which features several of his songs.
"I always saw the music as a protagonist, " Garcia said. "For the physical protagonist in the movie, the music is the one thing he finds solace in in exile. It is the one thing that never betrays him. It's true for me, too. When I close my eyes and I hear a piece of music from the past, I go back and live an era I didn't even know. I never saw Beny Moré live. But in my imagination I have."Friday at the Knight Center, Garcia will play not just with Cachao but with Moré's famed trombonist, Generoso Jiménez, who left Cuba in 2003. "I'll be like a kid in candy store, " Garcia said.Generoso and Cachao go way back. In 2005, they performed at the Grammys alongside Bebo Valdés, Arturo Sandoval and Johnny Pacheco in what the Recording Academy billed as a "once-in-a-lifetime performance."
"It was delicious, " says Generoso. "To be with Bebo and Cachao on stage again. At our age. Imagine that. I remember Cachao from when we were kids. I recorded a descarga album with him before he left Cuba. Now, here we are working again together in Miami. I find myself enchanted with life as I'm about to turn 89."
Cachao, who turns 88 in September, seconds that emotion.
"To be remembered after all these years. It's beautiful."