One more time: Cachao and Andy Garcia enjoy a moment on-stage at Bimbo's. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

"Cachao: Uno Mas"

Chuy Varela April 10, 2008

"You’re listening to Con Sabor," says KPFA DJ and Music Director Luis Medina. "I am going to be featuring an interview with one of the great masters of Latin Music, Israel "Cachao" Lopez. Cachao will be in concert tonight at Bimbo’s featuring the Cine Son All Stars with special guest Andy Garcia."

That’s how the documentary film Cachao: Uno Más opens. The Cachao tune, "Goza Mi Mambo" (Enjoy My Mambo), bubbles underneath as Luis talks on the radio and a visual panorama of San Francisco scenes—the Bay Bridge, ships, seagulls, cable cars, Muni, Victorians, and the Transamerica pyramid—all collage together.

Cachao: Uno Más gets its premiere as part of the 51st San Francisco Film Festival on Monday, April 28, at the Sundance Kabuki. It comes a few weeks after the passing on March 22, 2008, of the acclaimed bassist and Cuban music innovator at age 89 in Coral Cables, Florida. Now, what was to be a living celebration of his artistic work turns into a memorial mass paying homage to his musicality and accomplishments.

To Cuba with love

As the documentary unfurls, the cameras land at the Cigar Bar on Montgomery St., where Cachao, is being interviewed in person by Medina. "In 1926, I started as a percussionist, a bongo player," says Cachao in Spanish with English subtitles. "After a year I became a trumpet and tres player. Then I learned the bass."

It was early March of 2005 and Cachao was in town to be honored at a two-day celebration called "To Cuba with Love." Organized by the International Center for the Arts, it was the inaugural event for that program at San Francisco State University, which was started by alums George and Judy Marcus to raise the school’s profile in the arts.

The then 87-year-old bassist and Cuban music innovator was to be given the first Marcus Award for Lifetime Achievement that included a plaque and an honorarium of $25,000, a fitting accolade for a godfather of Salsa.

The award was presented at a gala at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and included Cachao sitting in with SF State Latin Jazz Ensemble under the direction of John Calloway. But the main event was to take place the following night Bimbo’s 365 Club in North Beach with Garcia and the Cine Son All Stars.

From Bimbo’s with love

"It was Steve Ujlaki who suggested we should film this," recalls co-producer Tom Luddy. "So we decided to film the show and award presentation. First it was just going to be a concert film, but later we decided to intersperse interviews, though it’s still largely performance driven."

Andy Garcia, who co-stars in the documentary, arrives on screen smoking a cigar and tuning his bongo drums on a smoky Bimbo’s stage. Garcia met Cachao in San Francisco at the urging of producer Tom Luddy when he was in town preparing for his role in The Godfather III.

The event was a presentation by the San Francisco Jazz Festival of a show at Davies Symphony Hall produced by the Bay Area Renaissance man of Latin music, John Santos, called The Evolution of Afro-Cuban Music. Luddy introduced the two and told him, "Stay in town, there’s a guy you just have to meet."

"One of the highlights of my life is not only knowing the music of Cachao," says Garcia in a revolving scene at a table with Cachao and renowned arranger, Ray Santos, reminiscing, "but knowing the man. He is one of the few musical innovators in the last 100 years."

The music begins and a delightful sequence of scenes from Bimbo’s coupled with short but information-rich interviews with Ray Santos, John Santos, Orestes Vilato and others quickly capture your attention and transform the viewing into a uniquely entertaining educational experience.

Vignettes from Cachao’s illustrious career manifest in imaginative ways, from displays of the covers from his numerous albums, film and photo clips of Mambo dancers at the Palladium, as well as vintage photos from Cachao’s own personal collection, which add a nostalgic glitter.

The film

As viewers experience this film, they will find that not only are the scenes exquisitely filmed, they’re edited utilizing state-of-the-art technology that gives it a larger-than-life presence. In comparison, it parallels such wonderful Latin music films as Fernando Treuba’s "Calle 54" and Wim Wenders’ "Buena Vista Social Club."

Key to the production is the Documentary Film Institute at SF State, where co-producers Tom Luddy and Stephen Ujlaki both work. Andy Garcia is also a co-producer and contributed his insight and experience to the post-production details of the film. But it was director and cinematographer, Dikayl Rimmasch, who gave the film its exceptional sheen by utilizing numerous cameras to shoot Cachao at Bimbo’s.

"Anybody who sees this film," says Luddy, "should return a convert. Cachao’s music is infectious and we hope this film will turn people on to Cuban music."

It was Luddy who was instrumental in getting Cachao in the running for the Marcus prize. A native New Yorker, Luddy first heard the bassist in the Big Apple when he was in his prime and his "tumbao," the rhythmic pulse of the bass that grounds the layers of syncopated beats in Latin music, drove the orchestra of Tito Rodriguez.

"I first saw Cachao as a kid in New York," says Luddy. "Later when I produced a film on Francisco Aguabella called Sworn to the Drum, I asked Francisco if we could include Cachao, so we flew him out from Miami."

That event would spark an association with Bay Area historian and percussionist John Santos that would lead to Cachao‘s emergence as a star. "El maestro (our teacher) was planning to be in attendance (for the film’s world premiere)," contributes Santos in an e-mail.

"He kindly agreed to perform as a guest with my quintet at the new Yoshi’s in SF after the film and the next night as well. With his usual humility, he told me on the phone how happy and grateful he was to be able to play with us. Imagínate! (Imagine that). All of us who enjoy any aspect of popular Cuban music, owe him the most immense debt of gratitude."

Cachao and the San Francisco International Film Festival

"The world premiere of Cachao: Uno Más is one of the highlights of the Festival," writes Miguel Pendas, Creative Director for the 51st SF Film Festival. "It becomes perhaps all the more precious now that Cachao himself is no longer with us. We will have this film as his final testament in words and music."

Andy Garcia, who’s confirmed he will be at the world premiere, emerges as heir to Cachao’s legacy with his Cine Son All Stars, with whom Cachao won his first Grammy Award for their Master Sessions Vol. 1. For Pendas, the screening of Garcia’s documentary, "Cachao (Como Mi Ritmo No Hay Dos)", made him a fan of Cachao’s music.

"Cachao fascinated me right away because he struck me as being one of those people that possesses the absolute essence of musicality: the ability to take some little shred of a melody or a rhythm and turn it into a perfectly elaborated composition. And that is really evident in the film. He takes a little tune, a bit of a Cuban rhythm and cooks up an infectious, original piece of music you wish would never end."

That perhaps sums up the captivating quality of this film. The music, the people and the master himself. From his gentle chiseled face, humility and profound historical insights into how African and classical music shaped his musical ideas and inventions, this film establishes the great greatness of Cachao.

"Now the film is a memorial and celebration of Cachao with lots of joy and happiness," concludes Luddy. "What we have is good and believe we succeeded in memorializing when Cachao came to SF and the how the people of The City embraced him."