Bebo Valdes' Long Musical Journey At 87, Cuban pianist and composer Bebo Valdes is busier than ever — and he's getting more recognition than ever before. But just 10 years ago, he was hardly recognized as a lounge pianist in Stockholm.

Bebo Valdes' Long Musical Journey

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block. At age 87, Cuban pianist and composer Bebo Valdes is busier than ever. He's also getting more recognition than ever before. In the past two years, he's won two Latin Grammies, and a regular Grammy, and his latest CD is nominated for another Grammy. Just 10 years ago, Valdes was serenading travelers at hotels and bars in Sweden. NPR's Felix Contreras has this profile.

FELIX CONTRERAS: Over the past four years, Bebo Valdes has made as many albums in as many styles, from a duo with a violinist, to a big band record, to a CD with a young Spanish flamenco singer that made them both stars in Europe.


CONTRERAS: Bebo Valdes says he never expected to be doing this much at his age. He was content just playing piano at Stockholm hotels. In fact, he says all he ever wanted to do was play the piano.

BEBO VALDES: (Through Translator) If you are a musician and you do one thing, you should enjoy what you do. This is my profession, and it is my hobby, and I live in love with what I do. In those years in Stockholm, even if I wasn't successful, I did it because I liked it, and I'll keep doing it until I die.

CONTRERAS: The long road from Havana to Stockholm to Grammy winner started in Cuba in 1925, when he was seven years old.


CONTRERAS: He says he was mesmerized by a pianist accompanying a dance orchestra.

VALDES: (Through Translator) My parents told me that when I saw the pianist play, I did not move the whole night. That gave my mother the idea that I wanted to play the piano. They also say I would move my hands on the floor as if I was playing a piano, and sing what I had just heard the pianist play. After that, my parents started my piano lessons.

CONTRERAS: Valdes went on to study European and Cuban classical music at the Municipal Conservatory in Havana. After class, he took in the music of the Cuban streets, the African-influenced Rumba. Then in the early 1930s, he heard American Jazz. At first it was pianists, Eddie Duchin and Jelly Roll Morton among them, then he took notice of the big bands and their arrangers.

VALDES: (Through Translator) The first orchestra that made an impact was Tommy Dorsey's. Then came Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie and others. They each had their distinct sound and style. And they had great arrangements that I would listen to so carefully.


CONTRERAS: In 1948, Bebo Valdes harnessed the influences of American Jazz, Cuban melodies and African rhythms when he became the principal pianist and arranger for the House Orchestra of the Tropicana Nightclub. The Tropicana was the crown jewel of Cuban nightlife, and the best musicians on the island were playing Valdes's arrangements.

NAT CHEDIAK: Bebo was the Quincy Jones of his day.

CONTRERAS: Nat Chediak has written a dictionary of Latin Jazz and produced Valdes' most recent recording. He says the top singers and orchestras in Cuba soon went to Valdes for their arrangements.

CHEDIAK: If you wanted to have a hit, you went to Bebo for your charts. There were no ifs, ands, or buts. He was Mr. Arranger.


CONTRERAS: Then things started to change for both Bebo Valdes and Cuba. A revolutionary government took over the country in 1959, and many of the island's casinos and nightclubs were shut down. When Valdes started his own orchestra in October of 1960, he asked for permission to travel to Mexico with the band. It was a calculated political choice. Valdes didn't plan on returning. It was also a difficult personal decision. He left behind a wife and five children. It's something that Valdes will not talk about.

CHEDIAK: It was not easy. It was not a decision that anybody made lightly.

CONTRERAS: Producer Nat Chediak's family also left during that time. He says many Cuban families were separated back then. All of them expected it to be temporary.

CHEDIAK: Nobody thought it was going to last this long. People thought that they were going away for two months, maybe a year or two at worst. They had absolutely no idea that they were never going to see Havana again.


CONTRERAS: From Mexico, Bebo Valdes did not look back. He went to Europe where in 1963 he married and started a new family in Stockholm. Then in 1977, one of his sons, Chucho Valdes, was invited to perform at Carnegie Hall with his own group, the celebrated jazz fusion ensemble, Irakere. Bebo Valdes flew to New York for what Nat Chediak calls the first careful steps towards reconciliation.

CHEDIAK: That was the first time that they met face-to-face after leaving Cuba. I think that's a victory. That's not to poo-poo the fact that there was an absence, but the fact that they love each other deeply today, and that they have been reunited is some kind of victory.

CONTRERAS: It took a few years, but it was another member of Irakere who helped launch Bebo Valdes's comeback. Clarinetist and saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera contacted Valdes in Stockholm in 1994 to get the aging master back into the studio.


CONTRERAS: After the release of Bebo Rides Again, Valdes was featured in the film CALLE 54 a documentary about Latin jazz. The three albums he's recorded since have all been critically acclaimed. The tall, elegant Valdes flashes a childlike smile when asked about all of the activity and attention so late in life.

VALDES: (Through Translator) This attention is a gift from God. I did not ask for all of this. But since it was sent to me, I accept it from the heart.

CONTRERAS: And at the heart of everything that Bebo Valdes does is his love for Cuban music. He has no plans to return to his homeland, but --

VALDES: (Through Translator) When you are from a particular country, you were born there, you grew up there, your parents are from there, you can never forget that. I can live in other places, come to love those places, but my country is my country. It is in my blood.

CONTRERAS: Bebo Valdes does want to return to New York. After a sold out run at the Village Vanguard, he says he's coming back next year with a big band.

Felix Contreras, NPR News.

NORRIS: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

BLOCK: And I'm Melissa Block. Osama bin Laden has broken his more than year-long silence. The Arab satellite television network Al-Jazeera has broadcast an audio tape of a new message from the al Qaeda leader. The CIA has authenticated the tape.

And, as NPR's National Security Correspondent Jackie Northam reports, the recording is raising speculation about the reasons for the new statement, and the timing.

JACKIE NORTHAM: The quality of the ten-minute audiotape is poor, but above the hiss and the rumble, you can hear the haunting voice of Osama bin Laden.


NORTHAM: On the tape, bin Laden says he is directing his message to the American people, and he warns them that they are being misled by the Bush administration. Bin Laden goes on to say the reason there hasn't been another large attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 is not because of increased security measures here, but because al Qaeda has been preparing for another attack, one that could come soon. The Department of Homeland Security says there are no immediate plans to raise the national terror alert.

Despite his threat to attack America, bin Laden also offered the U.S. a conditional truce to help build Iraq and Afghanistan. He didn't say what the conditions were. White House spokesman Scott McClellan dismissed any notion of a truce with bin Laden.

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: We do not negotiate with terrorists. We put them out of business. The terrorists started this war, and the president made it clear that we will end it at a time and place of our choosing.

NORTHAM: Al-Jazeera would not say when or where the tape was received. Counterterrorism officials say that normally the tape would go through a series of couriers before it reaches a broadcaster. There's much speculation as to when the tape was made. Al-Jazeera said the tape was dated in the Muslim month that corresponds to December.

There are other time markers. Bin Laden talks about a slump in the polls for President Bush, something that's been going on now for several months. And he makes indirect references to bombings in Europe, such as the July attacks on London's transit system. But bin Laden doesn't make any mention of last week's U.S. air strike, purportedly against senior al Qaeda officials, in a remote area of northwestern Pakistan.

The timing of the audiotape's release is also interesting, says Daniel Byman of Georgetown University.

DANIEL L: One possible reason for now is that the Iraq cause has come to dominate the international jihadist movement and that he is trying to assert some direction over this and also assert some identity with it, so people who want to join the jihadist movement will be thinking of him rather than thinking of possible rival leaders.

NORTHAM: Byman says one of the main potential rivals is Abumusab al-Zarkowi, the leader of the al Qaeda operations in Iraq. He says Zarkowi's view of jihad is pitting Shiite Muslims against Sunnis, whereas bin Laden sees it as a fight against the United States and its allies. Byman says that could be another reason to release a tape right now.

BYMAN: It's also a way of showing continued defiance to the United States. One way terrorists win is simply by surviving in the face of consistent pressure, and bin Laden's survival despite years of a U.S. manhunt is a form of victory for the terrorist organization.

NORTHAM: But al Qaeda has been severely disrupted since the 9/11 attacks. Many senior officials have been arrested or killed. White House officials say that bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders are clearly on the run, and that they will be pursued until they're caught. Counterterrorism officials say today's audiotape offers few, if any, clues as to where to find them.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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