In tandem with his multi-instrumentalist brother Orestes, bassist Israel "Cachao" López introduced to Cuban music the African rhythms that transformed the island's traditional danzón into what is now known as the mambo -- he also pioneered the descarga, the late-night jam sessions that revolutionized the sound and scope of Afro-Cuban pop and jazz. Born in Havana on September 14, 1918, just over a decade after Orestes, Cachao was the product of a sprawling, multi-generational musical family. At age eight he joined a local children's septet that featured singer Roberto Faz, himself a significant figure in Cuban musical history as well, and within a year teamed with another future legend, pianist Ignacio Villa (aka Bola de Nieve) to play his neighborhood movie theater in support of silent film presentations. As a teen, Cachao played contrabass with the Orquesta Filarmónica de la Habana, supporting guest conductors including Igor Stravinsky, Herbert von Karajan, and Heitor Villa-Lobos before joining Orestes in the Orquesta Arcaño y Sus Maravillas in 1937. By the time of Cachao's arrival, the orchestra was beginning to move away from its roots in French parlor music into a more African-inspired, rhythmic approach fusing the popular danzón style with syncopated percussion -- together the López brothers composed more than 3,000 danzónes for the group, most notably 1938's "Mambo," which introduced an atypically slow, heavy rhythm and galvanized Cuban music for generations to follow.
By the time Cachao finally left the Orquesta Arcaño y Sus Maravillas in 1949, mambo was virtually synonymous with Cuban music as a whole. During the decade to follow, he played in a series of musical revues and orchestras, most notably enjoying an extended stint with bandleader José Fajardo. Over time Cachao began organizing descargas (i.e., "discharges"), informal, after-hours jam sessions that enabled the assembled musicians to experiment in a variety of styles and instrumental configurations. The improvisational, jazz-inspired approach proved so rewarding that in 1957 Cachao began recording the sessions, releasing to international acclaim the Pan Art LP Descargas en Miniature, featuring conguero legend Tata Güines. The Cuban Revolution of 1959 nevertheless spelled the demise of Havana's reign as a center of music and nightlife, and after leaving with the Ernesto Duarte Orchestra for a Spanish tour in 1962, Cachao did not return to his homeland, beginning an exile that extended for the remainder of his lifetime. He soon settled in New York City, playing in support of Tito Rodriguez and later Eddie Palmieri -- Cachao spent much of the 1970s in Las Vegas, headlining revues at the MGM, Sahara, and Tropicana hotels, before settling in Miami in 1978. Although the South Florida region was by now home to a growing community of Cuban refugees, Cachao spent the 1980s in relative obscurity, often playing quinceañeras and weddings to support himself while Latin music struggled to reclaim its onetime commercial prominence.
Cachao's fortunes turned in 1989, when he befriended Cuban-born actor Andy Garcia, an avowed fan of the bassist's music. Garcia set about assembling a tribute concert held in Miami in the summer of 1992 -- the actor also financed the documentary portrait Cachao: Como Su Ritmo No Hay Dos, and with Miami Sound Machine co-founder Emilio Estefan, Jr. co-produced Cachao's acclaimed 1994 comeback LP, Master Sessions, Vol. 1, which earned a Grammy Award for Best Tropical Latin Performance. As his international profile grew, Cachao experienced a creative resurgence that culminated with Mambo Mass, a daring liturgical work encompassing elements of Afro-Cuban music, opera, and classical traditions that premiered at Los Angeles' St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in 2000. That same year he issued the LP Cuba Linda, and toured the globe with a 15-member orchestra that at times featured Garcia on bongos. Cachao teamed with fellow Cuban maestros Bebo and Patato Valdés for 2003's El Arte del Sabor, winning a second Grammy for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album, and another Grammy followed for 2005's solo release ¡Ahora Si! In 2006 Cachao was honored at two Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts featuring the Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra -- later that year, he also led a mambo all-star band at a JVC Jazz Festival program at Carnegie Hall. Cachao died from kidney failure in a Coral Gables, FL, hospital on March 22, 2008 -- he was 89 years old. ~ Jason Ankeny