Chucho Valdés, Cuban jazz dancers and the dentist's conga

In Havana, anything can happen. That is known. The same thing you find in a hotel making sandwiches to a hydrocarbon extraction engineer graduated from the Baku University of Petroleum, than to a communist militant who does witchcraft with a friend drainer to “turn the world upside down” for her ex-husband and “the other,” or you run into a venerable group of jazz dancers who have been entrenched for more than half a century defending their taste for American music, including the dark times when the Jazz was frowned upon in Cuba and considered almost an enemy rhythm. Another day you have a toothache and you go to the dentist’s office, and you find the pianist Chucho Valdés on the torture chair, talking animatedly to a dental technician who composes popular music in his spare time, and Chucho goes and tells him that the The last conga that he taught him “is very good” and that he is going to include it in an upcoming album that he plans to make with his father, the great Bebo Valdés. A few months pass, and Chucho records The dentist’s conga, and on top of that the album wins a Granmy Award.

The anecdote is from 2007 and occurred in the office of Dr. Mario Gallo, an excellent professional and teacher of generations of Cuban dentists. Gallo was also a huge jockey, owner of a Creole humor that made you laugh out loud even though he was massacring you with the lathe. He wanted to put a sign in his cubicle that said: “If you want to suffer like a horse, come to Dr. Gallo’s office.” But they didn’t let him.

Dancer from Santa Amalia.

One day, when visiting him without prior notice, Gallo finished attending Chucho Valdés and that led to a conversation that would become one of the main scenes of the documentary Music for live, directed by the Spanish filmmaker Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón. The pianist was still under the effects of anesthesia, and while Gallo joked he came out the theme of the dancers of Santa Amalia, good people wherever there are. The group then consisted of about twenty friends who had known each other since the 1950s and met once a month to dance to the rhythm of Dizzie Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole or Duke Ellington, although those downloads could also end with a devilish mambo. The question there was to move with swing.

The promoter of those clubs was a charismatic cigar maker named Gilberto Torres, who at the beginning of the 21st century became ill and on his deathbed made his son Willanga and his friend Lázaro swear to keep appointments at his house in Santa Amalia while one only of the dancers will remain alive. Chucho was excited. Not only did he know them and consider himself their friend, but he himself and his family had lived for years in the neighborhood of Santa Amalia and he remembered perfectly the parties that were held in that house, an old grocery store that Gilberto baptized as The Corner of jazz and that was even visited by Gillespie during one of his trips to Cuba.

The dancers said that on some occasion, at the end of the sixties, those peñas ended up interrupted by the police and with everyone in the police station for “ideological diversionism” rather than for playing loud music. Chucho remembered from that time that he himself was one of the founders of the Cuban Modern Music Orchestra, a lifelong jazz group created in 1967 that had to be given that name to disguise it. That was the way it was then.

Dancers from Santa Amalia.
Dancers from Santa Amalia.

Dancers from Santa Amalia.
Dancers from Santa Amalia.

I told him that I was working on a script for a documentary that intended to pay tribute to the dancers of Santa Amalia, already in their seventies, and in this way contribute to preserving their memory. Chucho, who in addition to being one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time is a soul of God, he lent himself to collaborate in whatever was necessary. Gutiérrez Aragón did not have to be asked much to agree to direct Music for live, despite the fact that a time before the director had said that due to the depressing state to which the profession was reaching, he was definitely leaving the cinema to dedicate himself to literature. If Chucho was willing to do anything for dancers, how could Gutiérrez Aragón not be, with a Cuban father and in love with the island’s music since his earliest childhood?

The director thus learned the story of Juan Picasso and Roberto Manzano, two of the group’s charismatic dancers, who would end up becoming the main protagonists of the film. Also to the couple made up of Lázaro and Naemí, Papito the tap teacher and Paulina the spiritualist, who had an altar in her house with candles, crucifixes and glasses of water, in which, she said, the souls of Billie Holliday lived, Ella Fitzgerald and other great jazz figures, as well as other dead of her own, whom she attended by occasionally blowing a mouthful of brandy and Havana tobacco smoke. Chucho and Pablo Milanés, who were also participants in the documentary, should not be presented to Gutiérrez Aragón, since as president of the SGAE he had been for eight years, he knew them very well.

From the first moment, Manzano and Picasso made the director fall in love with their stories. With them, he toured the mythical places in the city where the group went to unload in the 1940s and 1950s, such as Goyo’s still life or the famous Isora Club, on Melones street, Luyanó neighborhood, which would make the double bass player Israel López Cachao famous. with a danzón of the same name written by his sister Coralia.

Filming of 'Music to live', in Havana in February 2008. From left to right, Roberto Manzano, Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón and Juan Picasso.
Filming of ‘Music to live’, in Havana in February 2008. From left to right, Roberto Manzano, Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón and Juan Picasso.

The filmmaker loved that Manzano did the story of the time he ended up in the police unit accused of “ideological penetration.” “Penetrated with what, you come shit, what I like is to dance jazz!”, He replied to the guard.

Well, the day of filming began in February 2008, and with an unequaled aim. A day or two earlier, Fidel Castro, who had provisionally resigned from his posts in 2006 due to a serious illness, officially announced his decision to withdraw from the political front line. The news went around the world and, pressured by the Madrid newsroom, this journalist gave himself up to his work, abandoning the filming. From time to time he called Aragon at set to see how things were going.

– What do people say about Fidel?

– Hey, nobody says anything here. They say they haven’t seen television.

– Man, Manolo, ask …

-…. I’ve already asked and nothing … People go about their things. And let us work.

Visit of the pianist Chucho Valdés to the dentist to talk about the music of ‘Conga en Cuba’, within the documentary ‘Music to live’.

Days passed and the day came to shoot the Chucho scene with Dr. Mario Gallo and the dental prosthetics technician Osmani Valdés, author of the conga — and who is not the pianist’s family despite his last name. To film inside the hospital, it was necessary to request more permits than to enter a military unit, but finally they were obtained. Chucho, winner of a dozen Granmy Awards, got carried away like a saint and the fiction ended in a delirious way, with Chucho clapping on the patient’s chair, Gallo doing the keys with dental instruments and Osmani, teeth in hand, singing the chorus: “Come dance, let’s roll / this rich conga so that I can make you enjoy it.”

The dentist’s conga is the topic that closes Together forever, an album produced by Fernando Trueba that is very special for Chucho, because in that master session two pianos father and son reviewed the Cuban music that they played together at home all their lives. It was the eighth and last album that Trueba would edit for his great friend Bebo — they won three Grammy Awards and six other Latin Grammys — and he hit the streets with an anthological cover designed by Javier Mariscal.

Music from ‘La conga del dentista’, from Trueba’s album.

In 2010 Together forever it won the Granmy for the best Latin jazz album and the dancers of Santa Amalia lived the award as their own success. They were happy. Manzano and Picasso came to dance in Santa Amalia in one of those legendary peñas, to which young people always came to unload with the veterans. Today the two of them, and also Bebo, are already playing in another world, but here is this story.

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