Hidden musical treasures uncovered in Cuba

Catching up with Amadito Valdes,
a member of the Buena Vista Social Club

By Bill McFarland

Northeast Times Staff Writer

Looking for a needle in a haystack is an impossible task. Searching for something interesting and discovering a hidden treasure is much more likely.

It was during a visit to Havana last month that a chance encounter, along with a little curiosity, led me to the home of percussionist Amadito Valdes — one of Cuba's treasured musicians and a featured performer in Buena Vista Social Club.

Those who wonder if music is truly a universal language will agree that it is after viewing this film, a documentary about the making of the compact disc of the same name.

For those who don't know the story, guitarist and record producer Ry Cooder went to Havana in the mid-1990s and rounded up some musicians who used to perform in a long-gone club in Buena Vista, a western suburb of Havana, to make a CD. While working on the project, Cooder sent a rough mix of the album to German filmmaker Wim Wenders, who was so taken by the music that he went to Cuba with Cooder to make the movie.

The CD was a worldwide smash and won a Grammy Award. The movie showed the world some of Cuba's most talented musicians, some of whom have since captured success beyond their dreams, due to their exposure in Buena Vista Social Club.

For Amado Valentin "Amadito" Valdes, who for 40 years worked as a studio musician and with many bands in several countries, it led to the recording of his first solo album, Bajando Gervasio, which was nominated for a Grammy Award. Valdes and his wife, Julia Casuso, will be in Los Angeles on Sunday for the presentations and the telecast.

Bajando Gervasio is up for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album. Among the other nominees is Ibrahim Ferrer (for Buenos Hermanos), who was a featured singer in Buena Vista Social Club.

"The CD and the film by Wim Wenders was a major breakthrough for Cuban music all over the world," said Julio Cesar Garcia Tellado, a translator for Valdes.

"Of course," agreed Valdes. "Not only for me, but for everybody. All of this, including my current CD, is because of Buena Vista Social Club."

"(Bajando Gervasio) is selling very well in the United States, Spain and Portugal, and it was just released in Japan," said wife Julia. "The producers of the CD are Japanese."

"A Japanese company put up the money to make the CD with Juan de Marcos Gonzalez," said Tellado. "He's the brain of the Buena Vista Social Club."

Valdes explains how he came to the attention of a Japanese firm.

"I was in Tokyo in the year 2000 promoting an album, Deep Rumba, which was recorded in 1998," he began. "By coincidence, the movie Buena Vista Social Club was released in Japan in 2000, and I ended up being interviewed by the Japanese media, and I participated in the publicity (for the film).

"One person that I met, Mahashi Takahashi, happened to be president of (a record company). A few months later, he came to Havana, and he proposed to me that I make my first personal album — Bajando Gervasio."

"Amadito is the only timbal player to be nominated for a Grammy as a bandleader," added Tellado.

Valdes made Bajando Gervasio with Juan de Marcos' Afrocuban All Stars. The CD is a collection of 10 songs by eight composers that captures various elements of traditional Cuban music. It would be difficult to categorize beyond that, but it's easy to describe. It's simply good.

It was also a family affair for Valdes. Daughter Idania Valdes, a backup singer, and son Adel Rodriguez participated in the project.

"Idania normally sings backup with Ibrahim's band," said Valdes. "My son is on the CD. He plays bongo (drums)."

Sales of Bajando Gervasio will probably increase if Valdes wins a Grammy Award on Sunday, but Cubans place importance on other things.

"The nomination for a Grammy makes the CD a success," said Julia. "It's recognition of Cuban music around the world."

In addition to Valdes and Ferrer, the other three nominees are also Cuban. They are Barbarito Torres (Barbarito Torres), Soneros de Verdad Presents Rubalcaba (Pasado y Presente) and Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piniero (Poetas del Son).

While a Grammy would be nice, it's apparent that the nomination alone was enough to satisfy the musician.

"I'm very happy," said Valdes. "The market for Cuban music is very solid in America. This year, I'll do a tour in the United States."

Will its itinerary include Philadelphia?

"Yes," he nodded.

Incidentally, Ferrer was scheduled to appear in the Quaker City last February, but the show was canceled when the city was blanketed by a snow storm.

"I was not on that tour, but I've been to Philadelphia three times," Valdes said. "It's a very nice city. I remember playing in a big theater there in 1998."

Music lovers should watch for the date and mark their calendars. Those who are curious should view Buena Vista Social Club to see why music is such an integral part of Cuban culture.

And all of this became possible because of an idea floating in Ry Cooder's head back in the 1990s.

"The tremendous amount of publicity for that movie, without a doubt, contributed to putting my name in the international world of music," Valdes said.

The world is better off because of it.

My thanks to Orlando Matos and Mario Palomo for helping with the research and translations for this story.

This story was published on Feb. 4, 2004, in the Northeast Times in Philadelphia, which owns the copyright. It may not be reproduced anywhere else without permission.


Visit Amadito Valdes' Web site.

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