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A Cuban exile's inspiring encore A legend, back in style

Bebo Valdes, 90, a top pianist and bandleader during Havana's golden age of music, basks in the glory of his unlikely comeback.

October 23, 2008|Sebastian Rotella | Rotella is a Times staff writer.

BENALMADENA, SPAIN — A few days before his 90th birthday, Bebo Valdes contemplates his memories and melodies on a hotel terrace with a view of waves dancing in an African breeze.

Valdes puts aside the coffee he is nursing and examines two CDs. One is "Lagrimas Negras" ("Black Tears"), the surprise crossover sensation that made him an international star four years ago. But the disc he wants to talk about is the exquisite "We Could Make Such Beautiful Music Together," which teamed him with a Uruguayan violinist and came out in 2006. Valdes chuckles as he scans the list of songs.

"When I was young, I was crazy about this number," he says about the title track, speaking the fast, sugary Spanish of the Caribbean. "And 'La Rosita,' what a pretty thing. It's Mexican, the Mexicans have very good melodic music, you know? . . . 'I Only Have Eyes for You.' I played that too. Havana was American, chico! . . . 'Adios Nonino,' this is a very good Argentine classic. . . . 'Waltz for Debby': Bill Evans, he's my favorite pianist. The way of playing, and the studies he had. A unique style and a unique sound."

In black-and-white photos from the 1950s, Dionisio Ramon Emilio "Bebo" Valdes has the sleek look of a Cuban Duke Ellington: pencil mustache, wide-shouldered suits. They called him Caballon, or big horse, because he was tall and dashing and the premier pianist, bandleader, arranger and composer in Havana.

Today, he's stooped and thinner. He drags his feet a bit. But he still has a towering presence, warm gray eyes and a gentlemanly, gregarious smile.

A conversation with Valdes is a voyage through the marvelous spectrum of music that has forged him: from Madrid to Harlem; from Debussy to Rachmaninoff; from Ernesto Lecuona, another Cuban pianist, to Chano Pozo, the wild percussionist who electrified Havana's legendary Tropicana nightclub when Valdes reigned there as musical director.

"He is the last man standing of the golden age of Cuban music," says Nat Chediak, his Miami-based producer and friend. "There is no one else left. He is the last master from the golden age."

Valdes has experienced enough triumph, tribulation and redemption for three or four lives. The Cuban Revolution set him adrift on the tides of exile. He washed up on the icy shores of Stockholm. He married a Swedish woman and settled into sedate anonymity, working in hotel lounges as a background pianist. Even listeners who noticed the brilliance of his elegant, understated style didn't realize he was the living ghost of a legend.

That limbo became a 30-year extended parenthesis. With help from old and new friends, Valdes experienced a renaissance during the last decade. He has won seven Grammys and is nominated for an eighth next month. Today, he basks in an outpouring of acclaim, humble and bemused.

"Life tells you this is the way it is going to be, and there's nothing you can do about it," he says. "And even less in music."

Valdes was born in Quivican, a town near the Cuban capital. His father was a municipal employee, a descendant of African slaves. His seamstress mother was a "lovely mulata," he says, of African and Spanish descent.

They realized the potential of Bebo, whose nickname derives from the diminutive of "baby," when he was 8. After seeing a piano performance, the boy lined up rocks in front of him, played imaginary keys and sang.

The family made sacrifices to send him to the Havana Conservatory. By 16, he had launched into a music scene that was soaring to a historical apex, the equivalent of New York for jazz or Vienna for classical. Valdes made his mark as a versatile bandleader, playing everything from Spanish ballet to Gershwin at the Tropicana. He helped invent the mambo in the 1940s and later created a rhythm known as batanga, which is based on the sound of the drums used in Afro-Cuban religious rites. And he was a wizard of arrangement, the fast and prolific kingmaker of star vocalists.

In 1956, an influx of U.S. greats brought Nat King Cole to Havana for a project titled "Cole Espanol." Valdes did the arrangements and tried to teach the velvet-voiced crooner his language.

"He had to learn Spanish to sing it," Valdes recalls. "He could not pronounce the O. But he did the best he could. He had the greatest ear. Real perfection."

After praising Cole's piano skill with cheerful profanity, Valdes shakes his head when he recalls the American's weakness. "He drank liquor starting in the morning and all day long. And smoking was the same, one after another."

Valdes says he always kept alcohol and drugs at a distance. But his life in Cuba was a whirl. He had five children with two women he did not marry. Despite the domestic entanglements, his former girlfriends and children recalled him with tearful affection in a recent documentary, "Old Man Bebo."

As the revolution approached, political violence invaded his world. A bomb went off in the Tropicana. From the bandstand, Valdes saw a woman being carried out covered in blood, her arm blown off.

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