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A prolonged standing ovation greeted the entry of the 88-year-old double bassist Israel López, the man credited with inventing the mambo in Havana in 1938. Standing centre stage, he flourished his bow, paused briefly to tune his instrument and delivered a short solo before launching his 10-piece band into Cuban music’s trademark battery of rhythm.
López’s genius lay in his fusion of Afro-Cuban rhythm with the structures and harmonies of danzón, a formal dance music with roots in Spain. López, or Cachao as his band hailed him, retained the romance and some of the formal structures – the signature endings and tricky breaks between solos – and gave every instrument a rhythmic function, from the skewed, two-note bass lines that drive the orchestra to the harmonised vocals that call the brass to respond. Delivered with technical panache, the effect is exhilarating.
López is master of the off-beat bass figures that are at the heart of this music. But he likes to decorate them, slipping in casual bow-flicks, short cadenzas and body-slaps without breaking the impetus of this extremely supple rhythm section – Edwin Bonilla on timbales and Richie Flores on congas.
To make the grade in Mambo you have to be a flamboyant soloist, and from the opening “Descarga Cachao” López paraded a succession of jazz-inflected virtuosi. Kiwzo Fumero’s high note flourishes on trumpet and reedsman Rafael Palau’s cool tenor saxophone stood out. Romance came from the violinist Federico Britos and the dapper vocalists Daniel Palacio and Anthony Columbie. Both had a beautiful solo voice, but their blend in harmony was spine-tingling.
López adds entertainment by jousting with his band, grinning and grimacing silent-movie style as he trades licks and rhythms, as though Cuban rhythm were not enough. Exciting first time round, it lost momentum when repeated, although a dazzling encore guaranteed a deserved second ovation.
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