An Interview with Chucho Valdés

Cuban Bandleader Brings Irakere to Miami's Jazz Roots

Charlotte Libov

Aymee Nuviola.


Aymee Nuviola.

Irakere, which fused the pulsing sound of Afro-Cuban music, rock and Latin rhythms, with touches of classical and electronic music, in a manner that changed the jazz scene forever, comes to Miami for an evening led by founder Chucho Valdés.

The multiple Grammy award-winning Valdés brings his fabled nine-piece band to “Irakere 45,” a celebration of Afro-Cuban Jazz for “Cubismo! Chucho Valdés: Irakere 45” on Friday night  as part of Miami’s Jazz Roots series.

The concert will celebrate the 45th anniversary of Irakere, the trailblazing Cuban band first discovered by Dizzy Gillespie in Cuba in 1976 that, with its bold fusion of Afro-Cuban ritual music, popular Afro-Cuban music styles, jazz and rock, marked a before and after in Latin jazz, according to Shelly Berg, the artistic director of Jazz Roots.

“Chucho Valdés is a titan in jazz and Afro Cuban Music. His band, Irakere, set the world of music on a new path, and was unlike anything we’d heard before - and that was only the beginning!” stated Berg in a press release issued by Jazz Roots. 

Valdés is a six-time Grammy and three-time Latin Grammy award-winning pianist, composer and bandleader, who the New York Times in an article refers to as “Cuban jazz royalty,” and the creator of the band that was “a force for cultural hybridism from the start.” His most recent Grammy win was in 2016 for “Tribute to Irakere,”recorded live in Marciac during its Irakere 40th anniversary tour. Marciac, a small southwestern town in France, whose population is a mere 1,200, sees thousands of people converge in August from around the world for its renowned Jazz at Marciac.

Chucho Valdes. Photo: Francis Vernhet


Chucho Valdes. Photo: Francis Vernhet What was going on in the music scene in Cuba in the early 1970s that led you to establish Irakere?

Chucho Valdés: There were many dance orchestras and some Latin Jazz groups around at that time, but we wanted to do something different. So we took elements of African music, jazz, funk and classical music, and added elements of sounds from contemporary electronics. We were looking for a new way.”

maz: What were your influences at that time?

cv: The music of Bebo, my father. [Bebo Valdés was a pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader, and the house musician at the Tropicana in Havana]. He had made the rhythm “batanga,” [a style he created to compete with the “mambo” at the beginning of the 1950s], so I had the idea of retaking that to enrich both the dance music and the concert music.

maz: Did you have any idea when you founded Irakere that the band would still be here nearly a half-century later?

Chucho Valdez. Photo: Rick Swig


Chucho Valdez. Photo: Rick Swig

cv: We had no idea what was going to happen with what we were doing because it was a new concept, and we did not know if it would be accepted or not. I am proud that the new generations have taken Irakere as a reference, and also that our band is still alive.

maz: What will the audience that comes to this concert experience?

cv: They will hear a tribute to Irakere played by a young generation of musicians who were born and have studied the style of the band very well.

maz: What songs can they look forward to hearing?

cv: There are new songs that I have composed, of course, and they will also play “Juana 1600,” the song which opened all the concerts originally, and “Bacalao con Pan,” which was our most popular piece. We will also have the honor of having (Grammy nominated singer, musician and actress Aymee Nuviola as a special guest.

Irakere 40th Anniversary tour. Photo: Francis Vernhet.


Irakere 40th Anniversary tour. Photo: Francis Vernhet.

maz: What do you consider extra special about this concert?

cv: The strength of the band and the virtuosity of the musicians.

maz: Is there anything you’d like to add?

cv: We hope everyone enjoys the show and has a happy night.

The concert will open with Brazilian guitarist Diego Figueiredo, who George Benson called, “one of the greatest guitarists I’ve ever seen in my life.” He is a producer, arranger, orchestrator, and multi-instrumentalist, whose music is a fusion of jazz, bossa nova, and classical.

“Cubismo! Chucho Valdés: Irakere 45” will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday, April 20 inside the Knight Concert Hall of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, Fla., 33132. Tickets $45-$125. Call 305-949-6722.

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