The Chronicle Interviews Chucho Valdes: An Afro-Cuban Jazz Superstar with Soul

From left to right: Drummer Dafnis Prieto, percussionist Yaroldy Abreu, pianist Chucho Valdes and bassist Yelsy Heredia pose for a photo at their hotel prior to their May 31, 2018 performance at the Charleston Gaillard Center for this year’s Spoleto Festival USA. Photo: Hakim Abdul-Ali

By Hakim Abdul-Ali

In the worlds of musical tastes there are some good musicians and, in other considerations, there are some who are simply superlative beyond descriptions. On Wednesday, May 31, 2018, I had a distinct opportunity in interviewing one such superb musical royalty, one who’s beyond mere descriptions and is, I would politely say, a musician’s musician.

That personality was the great Afro-Cuban jazz superstar Jesús Valdés Rodríguez, professionally and commonly known as “Chucho” Valdés. This prolific pianist, arranger, vocalist and composer extraordinaire was the leader of the great band, “Irakere”, and he was a member of the Orquestra Cubana de Música Moderna. His impressive musical accolades proceed and continue to rise from those past monumental achievements to this very day.

Assisted by translator Alfonso Noriega of Oviedo, Spain, our interview took place at the fabulous Belmond Charleston Place Hotel in downtown Charleston as we talked about some things, including a few that were outside of the musical arenas. Even though our interview was shortened and rather brief, due to a previously scheduled sound check, it still yielded some very pertinent details and thoughts about and from this six time Grammy Award winning musical superstar’s persona.

One thing that I learned from interviewing this 76-year-old legend was how proud that he was to be Cuban and to be of African heritage.  He said that his cultural upbringing in the Yoruba religion is what he grew up in, and it’s always been a real inspiration for him.

Concerning his love of his own unique African heritage, he said, “I am an Afro-Cuban man, and I’m proud of who I am. I’m very proud to be Cuban, and I think all Cubans, and everyone else, should be proud of who they are.” In interviewing Mr. Valdés on this topic, l could tell that he was unashamedly proud of his Afrikan heritage.

This was evident throughout our interview, and he continued in our discussion with an encouraging message of hopefulness for the global Cuban community by stating, “I feel that all Cubans, in particular, must respect our own roots, especially the roots of the Afro-Cuban. We must work to be respected and to gain more recognition, and not only in Cuba, but all over the world. It must done with love.”

Chucho Valdés told me that the music that he was going to perform that night for Spoleto was going to be a special concert presented with a variety of things, generally based upon his and his band’s Afro-Cuban roots because the music will be based on our own identity. “It’s going to be about the group’s own voice, the movement and, therefore, it’s our music,” he positively asserted.

This very laid back and astute musical genius also discussed briefly the effects of politics upon the Afro-Cubans in Cuba. He told me that, generally speaking, Afro-Cubans in Cuba are not usually into politics and that they are into their own religious worlds, and they are not so involved in the political arenas in no sense (sic).

Mr. Valdés also let me know in a not-so-secret fact about his admiration for the legendary American classical music great Ahmad Jamal. “He (Mr. Jamal) is an absolute icon to me. He’s been a source of inspiration for me, and he and his jazz trio is the most original and creative trio that I’ve ever seen,” related Mr. Valdés.

“Ahmad Jamal is the most truthful, pure and creative pianist that’s (still) on the planet earth in every musical aspect that you can think of, including from composing to playing. There’s only one Ahmad Jamal, and I love him. My respect for him and his music is real.”

The Chucho Valdés Concert Review

The Chucho Valdés Quartet performed at this year’s Wells Fargo Jazz Program at the Charleston Gaillard Center with a spontaneous evening display of some of the hippest and awesome Latin based and soulfully tinged jazz you’d ever want to hear anywhere. They are incredibly gifted and are extreme masters of their craft, with no one, in my view, who presently comes near them in what they do.

The band, besides the suave and intense leader Mr. Valdés, includes the ever-so-rhythmic Yaroldy Abreu Robles on percussion, the explosive and powerful Dafnis Prieto on drums and the brilliant, but skillfully alluring, Yelsy Heredia on bass. This band is “the” top shelf ensemble of the best of the best of musicians in any genre if you ask me, and their performance for Spoleto Festival USA 2018 was stellar.

Starting the evening off with “Obatala,” “Son 21,” and next, “Rambon,” the Chucho Valdés Quartet had the audience on the edges of their seats with awe and appreciation for what they were hearing. These undulating tunes set the curve for what was to follow as the mercurial Mr. Valdés orchestrated his musical cohorts to continual levels of jaw dropping, groovy Latin melodies and pulsating rhythms.

The audience was then setup for the uptempo”Ochun”, followed by “Mucho Coco” and then the subdued and intriguing piano solo, “Chopin”, tunes which further showcased the depth of Mr. Valdés’ profound musical dexterity. After these show stopping entrees, Chucho Valdés and his mates then “served” the audience more delicious treats for their musical palates with “Mambo in Heaven”, and a personal favorite of mine, his stirring rendition of the great Ahmad Jamal’s masterpiece, “But Not For Me”.

That made my night. And the last hot tune was “Solar”, which fittingly brought to a fantastic end a delightful evening of Latin soul exquisitely performed music by these very uniquely accomplished performers.

Chucho Valdés is a professional musician’s chosen musician of choice. This three-time Latin Grammy Award winner is physically larger than life, and his stunning musical repertoire in Charleston last Wednesday reflected the dynamism of his Afro-Cuban musical background, heritage and influences. Again, he and his band were amazing.

The Chucho Valdés Quartet delivered what I honestly believe was one of the most incredible and dynamic concerts that I’ve ever seen in my thirty-plus years of covering this globally recognized musical extravaganza. It was a one of a kind show, and it was one that I’m sure those who witnessed this performance would have also agreed with me that it was definitely something else on the grand scale of superbly excellent.

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