Note: This article was written by Spencer Leigh and taken from the UK Independent. Used without permission, with love and respect for the subject.
Better late than never, perhaps, but recognition and fame for the various members of the Buena Vista Social Club was, nevertheless, more than a little tardy. It was the American guitarist Ry Cooder who brought some of these fabled Cuban musicians out of retirement for a famed collaboration in 1996, and a subsequent 1997 album, Buena Vista Social Club. Such key members as Compay Segundo (vocals, guitar), Ruben Gonzalez (piano), Ibrahim Ferrer (vocals) and now Orlando Lopez (bass) have since died. Lopez, at the age of 63, was a comparative youngster in the band.
Because of the strained political relationship between America and Cuba since the revolution in 1959, Cuban musicians were not allowed into the U S, and as a result, their talents had been overlooked. In 1996, Cooder and the owner of World Circuit Records, Nick Gold, visited Cuba with the intention of making an album with local musicians. Cooder selected his musicians carefully and the results achieved global acclaim. The musicians, Lopez included, toured the world and appeared in Wim Wenders's documentary film of the same name.
Orlando Lopez was born into a family of musicians in Havana in February 1933. They played in symphony orchestras, jazz groups and dance bands around Cuba, and Orlando himself was to play many forms of music. His grandfather, Pedro, had passed his talent for bass-playing to his father, Orestes, and his uncle, Israel, who was known as Cachao (hence "Cachaito", "little Cachao"). In the late 1930s, the two brothers added some African rhythms to the local music and effectively laid the foundations for mambo music.
As a child, Orlando would watch his father and his associates at work and although he initially wanted to play the violin, his aunt Coralia encouraged him to follow in the family tradition. The first composition he learnt was "Isora", written by his aunt for the Isora Society Club, which she ran. Lopez's first composition was named "Isora Infantil". He worked for various jazz groups and then, in the 1950s, became a bass player with the National Symphony Orchestra and took classes with the Czech bassist Karel Kopriva.
He began teaching bass at the Guillermo Tomas Conservatory in the Sixties and continued to do so for over 30 years. "In a sense, music making is all listening and watching," said Lopez. "As a bassist, I think of myself as a pillow, always supporting everything that is happening and always there for the soloists to fall back on."
Cooder was impressed with Lopez's powerful tone and talent for improvisation. He became an integral part of the Buena Vista Social Club project and the title tune for the album was a slinky instrumental written by Orestes. With 7m copies sold, the album is the biggest-selling world music album to date.
Lopez played on many albums following Buena Vista Social Club, as well as making his own album, Cachaito, in 2001. Guests included Hugh Masekela on flugelhorn; the pair also wrote "Tumbanga" together. The album also featured compositions by himself and his uncle Israel, who died in 2008. Lopez played UK dates to promote the album including an appearance at the Royal Festival Hall which collected impressive reviews.
Orlando Lopez, bass player: born Havana February 1933; died Havana 9 February 2009.
click here to listen to a track from Cachaito's album!