BY LIZ BALMASEDA | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Miami Herald

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Cuban bassist Israel ‘Cachao’ Lopez’s records his new album in an L.A. studio. CARL JUSTE/HERALD STAFF

LOS ANGELES - The mambo still whispers to Israel “Cachao” Lopez, 84 years into his youth. It only begins as a whisper, that is. When he’s lingering over lunch, when he’s at the cleaners, when he’s shaving, it drops a new line on him. And as he always has done, Cachao, the Cuban bassist extraordinaire, snaps it up and commits it to memory. Except when he’s shaving, of course.

“That’s when I force my mind to think of a ballad so I don’t cut myself,” he says in mock severity before breaking into his characteristic sly grin.

It is the fluid rapport between the mambo and himself that has brought Cachao back to Capitol Records’ legendary Studio A, where for three days he ambles past black-and-white portraits of his contemporaries. Frank Sinatra. Judy Garland. Nat King Cole. Moments later, at his upright bass, Cachao shows little regard for their slumbering ghosts. He ignites one jam session after another, setting off a spontaneous combustion of horns and timbales, congas and claves. Only his wood cane rests. Everything else jumps and jives.

And, harmless as he may seem during an occasional catnap, Cachao is fully to blame for the commotion. The Cuban swing has carried his name for 66 years. He was a young bongo player who turned the bass into drums, beating a new rhythm into Havana’s starched ballroom sounds. The son of a musical family, Cachao and his multitalented older brother, Orestes, wrote a new, soulful line in Cuban music, the first mambo.

Now, nearly a decade into the world’s fascination with the vintage sounds of Cuban yesteryear—a commotion he also instigated—Cachao’s contribution becomes clear. His is not a dying art form preserved in the brine of nostalgia. The spirit of his mambo and his rollicking jam sessions is renewed with each whim of the muse. And the beautiful thing is Cachao still believes the muse is boundless.

“Look at him. He’s like a punk rocker,” says a young Los Angeles hip-hopper and fusion bassist named Jeffrey Connor, who dropped in to observe Cachao record yet another one of his master sessions. “He thinks outside. Real outside.”

Cachao, his eyes closed, seems oblivious to everything except the strains of cha-cha-ch blasting into his earphones. He waits for the musicians, respected veterans, to finish rehearsing the first number, then shakes his head.

“The air in here is funereal. Let’s bring this thing back to life,” he tells them.

And they do, kicking up the tempo into a swell of percussion. Eyes closed, Cachao grooves and approves.

“A-ha!”

This recording, planned for a late summer release, is Cachao’s fifth since the second spring of his career dawned 10 years ago. After a glorious run in pre-revolutionary Cuba, a good stretch in New York’s newly exploding salsa scene shortly thereafter, and years of playing Las Vegas, Cachao moved to Miami and slipped into the obscurity of a wedding musician, picking up gigs here and there. He churned through Miami’s hazy ‘80s, backing up resident charanga kings Hansel y Ral in local lounges.

MIAMI VICE

Years before his graceful 1938 composition The Buena Vista Social Club became a hallmark of the Cuban roots rediscovery movement of the ‘90s, Cachao was just another bass player in Babylon. His dubious place in that era is epitomized in an anecdote he tells about getting forced off I-95 by a cocaine cowgirl as he drove to work one night.

“Move it, old man!” he recalls the teenage tough yelling as she forced him to the side of the road and then pulled out a machine gun.

“Where are you going?” she demanded. When he told her he was a musician at Papa Grande, a local Big Daddy’s lounge, and that he played with Hansel y Ral, she eased up. Charanga carried clout back in that day. Cachao recalls her parting words: “Well, I’m not going to kill you because I’m in a good mood.”

Later that night, Cachao was shocked to see the girl turn up at the club. She asked if she could take a picture with him. Cachao reluctantly posed with her—and her piece.

His musical rebirth would come at the close of that decade, when another fan, a famous Hollywood actor, came to meet him and ask if he would accept a tribute.

“I came back to life,” Cachao recalls.

That fan, Cuban-American actor Andy Garca, didn’t know that his connection to Cachao transcended musical admiration. He would come to learn that the bassist was an old friend of his father’s. But Garca did realize the veteran musician offered more than an opportunity for a trendy revival. He was the real deal, a prolific composer and a masterful teacher.

Garca, who in the past decade has produced four of Cachao’s recordings, including this most recent jam, is constantly surprised by his mentor’s abilities to pull musical lines out of the air.

They share long-distance phone chats in which Cachao in Miami rattles off new inspirations for Garca in Los Angeles. Just days before the recording sessions, Cachao came up with a rhythmic love song he called Esperanza. Listening from his kitchen in Los Angeles, Garca was feeling it.

“Although I’m no longer with you, I’ll never forget you . . . “

Nice, but who’s Esperanza? Garca wanted to know. Cachao told him that was just a random name. In that case, Garca wondered, can we call her Aurora? Aurora being the lead female character in Garca’s epic film project, The Lost City. That’s how Cachao came to immortalize Aurora in Studio A.

IN THE STUDIO

Name switch aside, it’s clear Cachao is in charge of his sound in the studio. The other musicians—powerhouse names in Latin music like trombonist Jimmy Bosch, timbalero Orestes Vilato, conga master Luis Conte, tres star Nelson Gonzalez, flutist Danilo Lozano, violinist Federico Brito, Afro-Cuban rumba vocalist Lazaro Galarraga and arranger Alfredo Valdes Jr.—approach him often to ask for stylistic instruction.

When they think he’s deep in conversation or has fallen sound asleep, they’re startled to find that not only is Cachao paying close attention, he’s tracking the missed notes. And even when he does take a little nap during a rehearsal, he perks up at the sound of an ill-timed horn or struggling vocal, leans into his microphone and scats the line in perfect pitch. Not that he has rehearsed it, either. He simply memorized it a little earlier, moments after composing it.

If Studio A is the recording industry’s quintessential music-making kitchen, where cooks from Ella Fitzgerald to Barbra Streisand to Sting have stirred up hits since 1956, Cachao is the cat who brings the George Foreman grill.

In the studio, one longtime fan remembers the first time he saw Cachao perform, in a New York jazz club in the early 1960s.

“I bought his 1961 album, Descarga en miniatura, in a subway station in New York. The picture on the cover became my wardrobe style for the next 20 years. He was wearing pleated pants and two-toned shoes,” recalls Alan Geik, a Los Angeles public radio disc jockey.

Five months shy of his 85th birthday, Cachao still sizzles with the best of them, and, clearly, not even he buys his own lament that “after you’re 80, it’s all downhill.”

KID PERFORMER

Not that he hasn’t earned the right to retire. He’s been slapping the bass for, as he puts it, “only 76 little years.” He was 8 years old when he began performing, and he was playing important venues with the Havana Philharmonic Orchestra before he was tall enough to reach his instrument. The fact that he had to stand on a crate to play didn’t deter him—after all, he had 35 relatives who played the bass.

Barely into his 20s, he and his brother Orestes were playing for one of Cuba’s most prestigious dance orchestras, Arcao y Sus Maravillas, and writing compositions that would number in the thousands. In the late 1930s, the brothers began to break out of the classic danzon style, adding greater syncopation and creating a revolutionary nuevo ritmo.

The new rhythm came to be known after a quick-paced danzon they titled Mambo. After it failed to ignite dancers stuck in a more romantic groove, the Lopez brothers slowed it down and really started something. Ten years later, Cuban bandleader Dmaso Perez Prado added horns and flash and turned the art form into a craze abroad.

Back in Cuba, Cachao was on to something else. He and Orestes were hosting unscripted sessions, descargas, anything-goes jams. Through the years, this has been Cachao’s preferred forum for expression. The descargas allow his inner daredevil to tempt inspiration.