The Diaz Ayala Cuban and Latin American Popular Music Encyclopedic Discography of Cuban Music

Off Campus Access

Cuba Canta y Baila

Bebo Valdés Biographical Notes

English | Español

Dionisio Ramon Emilio Valdés Amaro is one of the best kept secrets of Cuban music. Born October 9, 1918 in Quivicán, a small town in the province of Havana, his story follows the pattern of many poor and humble musicians from Cuba. First, start piano lessons in his village; his goal: "arrive" in Havana--in his case in 1936 with an aspiration to succeed, create and innovate. It is a long and laborious process of economic difficulties, struggles, and sacrifices, made somewhat easier by friends willing to help this mulatto--tall like a palm tree and strong as a jiqui, but essentially kind, shy and brilliant.

When he reminisces on his life, he carefully mentions all the people who helped him, among them his first teachers in his village, his aunt Ña Facunda, of Luyanó, babalocha (priestess of the Yoruba cult) who instructed him in the difficult subject of Afro-Cuban ritual music. Many others like Hebert Spieger, a clever young Jew who arrived in Cuba in the thirties, advised him, "Good pianists in Cuba there are many, but not many who are also good arrangers and versed in harmony, so continue with your studies --there will an open field for you."

The pianist Curbelo, taught him the tricks of accompaniment for live shows--things that are not learned in school, (except perhaps in dance schools). Like other talented musicians of the time, he began to familiarize himself with jazz. By the 1940s he was already a recognized and sought after arranger, having worked for major radio stations: CMQ, RHC, Mil Diez.

From 1945 to 1947 he was pianist and arranger for the Julio Cueva orchestra. Next he assumed musical direction of the Cabaret Tropicana for ten years, when in the late 50s, he became musical director for the Sevilla Biltmore Hotel. He left Cuba for Mexico on October 26, 1960 at the same time as Rolando La Serie.

He made his Mexican debut at Cabaret La Terraza Casino with Rolando La Serie. Remaining in the Aztec land for a while directing the musical production of the Gamma record label; before going to Los Angeles. He continued the "pilgrimage" like many other Cuban artists who had to leave their country in the 60s. Onward to Spain where he recorded two albums with Monna Bell, and accompanied her on tour throughout Spain, followed by another tour with Lucho Gatica. In 1962, he joined the Lecuona Cuban Boys Orchestra, and began a tournée through Europe that for Bebo ended in Sweden, where he met Rose Marie, a beautiful girl who became his second wife. Here began his long 30-year stay in wintery Stockholm, where he acted mostly as a solo pianist in luxury hotels, inserting Cuban music into his international repertoire at every opportunity.

In the endless debate of who invented the mambo, it should be noted that when Bebo replaced René Hernandez as the pianist and arranger in the orchestra of Julio Cueva, there was already some arranged work by René, on guarachas for Cascarita, that carry the riffs (repeated musical phrases) of saxophones which was the distinctive mark of the Pérez Prado mambo, such as Figurina del solar by Chappottín, and Sacando boniato by Julio Cueva--a trend that continued with Bebo.

In October, 1946 the orchestra recorded Rareza del siglo--a mambo composed by Bebo, although the record label identifies it as a montuno beguine.

Perez Prado followed this same path, as a pianist and arranger for the Casino de la Playa orchestra, where he composed what were truly mambos although they were not labeled as such until much later at the end of the decade when the mambo became especially popular.

In 1952 Bebo launched a new rhythm entitled "Batanga", with a complex rhythmic base. Cuban percussionist Cándido Camero (another forgotten figure) helped Bebo with its conception. The orchestra Bebo organizes to launch the Batanga, also serves to make Benny Moré known in Havana and is also the big band format that Benny incorporates in his giant band. The batanga as a musical genre was not successful, but the bass rhythmic figurations that supported it were adopted by the Orquesta Aragón. It must be said, that some of the best liked mambos and most commonly danced in Cuba were written by Bebo: Güempa, Ritmando el cha cha chá, Bien explicao.. This is because perhaps Bebo's were more attuned to the taste of the "criollo" (creole, native) dancer than the more internationally appealing Pérez Prado mambos.

The recordings made by Panart during the late 50s with Cachao and Julio Gutiérrez are taken as the starting date of the concept of jam sessions or "descargas" of Cuban music. But in October 1952, Bebo and his sextet, recorded for the Mercury label various "descargas" among which was his excellent Con poco coco. When Alvarez Guedes in the late 50s successfully launched Rolando La Serie, Fernando Alvarez and Celeste Mendoza, the launch pad was the sensational orchestra and the stunning orchestral arrangements by Bebo. During this time Bebo had also been doing these kinds of arrangements on the Panart label for other artists as well, such as Orlando Vallejo.

Bebo was able to just as easily arrange music for a lush tropical orchestra as well as for one of just romantic violins. When people talk of the great jazz bands of Afrocuban Jazz, it is usually forgotten that between 1953 and 1954, Bebo Valdés recorded four LPs in Havana, three for the Decca label and one for the Panart label, essentially using the Cabaret Tropicana orchestra. These were great and original performances in this genre. His extensive discography is comprised of various labels--either with his orchestra alone or accompanying those previously mentioned--as well as such talent as Pio Leiva, Mirtha Silva and many others.

Suddenly, in 1994, Bebo left his semi-retirement with the force of a cyclone. Under the initiative of Paquito D'Rivera, he wrote new numbers and with a group of stars recorded an unbelievable CD, "Bebo Rides Again", with material meriting a Grammy Award. Unfortunately the CD was not well marketed by the record label. Since, he's continued recording and as we update these lines (July 2004), he has already won two Grammys in 2003, the Latin and the National, for his album El Arte del Sabor . For the 2004 awards he has four nominations for the album "Lágrimas Negras" and another for the album "We could make such beautiful music together."

Cristóbal Díaz Ayala. Ver: Max Salazar: “Bebo Valdés” Latin Beat Magazine, no.2, 1991, pág.9; Chediak, obra citada, pág.236.Radamés Giro, “Diccionario Enciclopédico de la Música en Cuba”, Ed. Letras Cubanas,2007. Este mismo mes de octubre de 2007, y coincidiendo con los noventa año de Bebo, se lanzó en Madrid su biografía, escrita por el sueco Mats Lundahl.