Chucho Valdés (Quivicán, Cuba, 79 years old), an acclaimed pianist, may not be a singing virtuoso, but he sings his own live. Tall, wide, compact, dark dressed in very white and colorful white, with a powerful voice and an extremely contagious laugh, it is impossible not to see him in the midst of the entourage that entertains him at the headquarters of the General Society of Authors of Madrid, where he rehearses between bolus and bolus from his tour of Spain. He is accompanied by a young woman, whom he keeps an eye on and asks every so often if he doubts any information. Of course, I screw it up to my groin and ask if it’s his daughter. “No, it is my wife, Lorena, Julián’s mother, my 14-year-old boy,” answers the teacher. Far from letting me swallow the earth deservedly, the proud husband and dad answer the rest of the questions with the frankness of a newcomer. Thanks.
Why does he keep acting, being able to be enjoying life?
Because, while enjoying family, acting is when I am enjoying life. I can even say that I have never worked, because I have been paid to do what I like the most. I need those two parts. They are like the two wings of a bird: if you cut one off me, I would plummet.
Bebo rides again
Not thinking of retiring?
Never. This is until death and after death. I don’t know how, but I’ll keep playing.
Do you believe so much in eternal life?
Well, I’m religious and I pray like my mom and grandmother taught me. I have my Yoruba African roots, but also Catholic ones, and syncretism, which unites them. I carry a saint from each hand, and if one fails me, I have the other to hold on tight [se parte de risa].
What gives you the faith to have so much?
Hope, consolation and other motivations that I cannot explain. I have been playing the piano and I have seen my father watching me.
He will say that he felt it.
No, I have seen it from seeing it, and not once, but many times. If you say that they think you are crazy, or that you take some substance. I don’t drink substances, not even alcohol, but sometimes, when I touch, I see my father, and I even feel his smell, I don’t want to talk about esotericism, but I tell things as they are.
“This [ofrecer conciertos] it is until death and after death. I don’t know how but I’ll keep playing
Are you still affected by criticism at your age?
I love them. Sound and wise criticism helps and spurs. I receive them with gratitude and fear of lowering the level, of disappointing, even if it is yourself. Self-love is what keeps me playing the piano and practicing eight hours a day, every day.
Do you still feel like you have to prove something to someone?
I’m gonna put an example. I took care of my father in his later years. He was 90 years old, he was sick, it was difficult for him to move, but when he went on stage, he was again the Bebo of his 20 years. That so beautiful happens to those of us who have that commitment. Playing I’m still a teenager.
Is that the drug you do take?
Exactly, that’s super addictive and you don’t take it off with anything or anyone. There is no methadone for that.
How do you play and improvise better: happy or sad?
When you are excited. You can play happy or sad, even if you die inside. But it is best played when the goblin comes.
And how is it summoned?
That one is impossible to summon. He is autonomous, and he comes and goes when he wants, he is not on the payroll. It can be presented to you at any time, even without sitting at the piano. It has happened to me to be on a plane and ask for paper running because I have come up with a great musical phrase. Or wake up at dawn and jump out of bed to record something on the piano and, the next morning, not remember anything. The goblin kidnaps you. And if he comes to a concert, you play better than ever.
“Self-love is what keeps me playing the piano and practicing eight hours a day, every day.
And what happens if, in a group of several musicians, one is with the goblin and the others are not?
The goblin is contagious, it is transmitted. When there is emotion, the musicians feel like they are pushing you and we go into a trance. It is like an individual stream that becomes collective.
Could a robot do jazz?
Beethoven already said it: “A mistake is insignificant, but playing without passion is unforgivable”, and it is impossible for a machine to achieve the passion of a pianist.
What does it take to succeed in your business?
Imagination. More than technique, more than practice, more than everything. Imagination is the queen of improvisation.
He has played before kings and beggars. Where did you find the most respect?
In both. Music has no classes. I feel very respected by everyone and that is comforting.
Reggaeton has ousted salsa as a global Latin dance music. Likes ?
In all ages, young people have had their choices. In the 50s I played Chopin and Mozart, but I liked Elvis and Hendrix. For my grandfather, that I like Elvis was like for me that my grandchildren like reggaeton. You cannot go against these currents because that will give them even more strength. I am never against any music, like it or not. I sometimes feel the message of the texts as aggressive and too macho, yes.
If not with Bad Bunny, what are his hips going with?
With the Cuban son, with the conga, the rumba, flamenco, rock and roll, funk. Maybe because they are from my time, but I think it’s music forever.
“I can go out amid applause that, if something didn’t go the way I wanted, I might not sleep
Some defect will have. You, I say.
A lot of. That I don’t accept mistakes myself, for example. I can go out amid applause that, if something didn’t go the way I wanted, I might not sleep, because I stay upset, wondering why I failed, if I prepared well. That makes me very sick. Just like if a musician of mine makes a mistake. I won’t tell you anything, but it bothers me a lot.
So you are a demanding boss.
I think so, because those who taught me were. Especially the Bebo. Dad was a loving fussy, not pushy.
Are you still afraid of disappointing him?
There was a chapter that I am going to tell you. I learned to play the piano by ear when I was three years old. When I was five I had my first teacher, Óscar Ruiz, who composed for Celia Cruz and La Sonora Matancera. One day, I would be nine years old, it was raining and I was looking out the window, my father came, hugged me and told me that if I wanted to dedicate myself to music, I had to do it very well, because he would not like me not to it was good. I promised to do my best to never let you down [se emociona].
Have you dedicated your life to that promise?
In 1993 my dad wrote me a letter. I had gone to play in Sweden, where he lived, and he came to see me after many years without seeing us, sorry, I’m going to cry. In that letter he told me that I had kept my promise of nine years. That is my biggest prize. Neither Grammys nor Nobel. The greatest award that God has given me has been to my father Bebo and my mother, Pilar.
Maybe that’s why it appears to him when he plays.
Can be. The last years with him in Benalmádena were wonderful. We meet again. We would sit at his house or mine to play with four hands. We recorded a record together. He met Lorena and Julián, my young son and his last grandson. There we make up for lost time.