His nickname Cachao (sounds like k-chow) came from his musician grandfather. His mother and father, also musicians, taught him to play the double bass and by age 12, he was performing with a symphony, standing on a box to reach the top of his instrument. When he died in 2008 at age 89, Cachao left behind an amazing legacy as a composer and virtuoso bassist. In a documentary hosted by fellow Cuban-born Andy Garcia on the PBS series, “American Masters” (2010), he was honored for his far-reaching influence, especially for the mambo.
During the 90-minute program, Cachao named Beethoven as his favorite composer from his symphonic days. In his teens, he also began to play with dance orchestras. Although Pérez Prado is credited with starting the mambo craze in the U.S., Cachao and his brother did invent the style by incorporating Afro Cuban rhythms into a speeded-up variation of the popular slow dance of the 1930s called danzón. He was also composing at the time and talked about writing an incredible 1,500 danzóns.
In the 1950s, Cachao brought another innovation to music when he helped bring musicians together for the first jam sessions, called descargas, the source of improvisations that eventually led to instrument solos during the performance of jazz and other genres.
He was a musical star in Cuba when he left for Spain in 1962. With Castro now in power, he decided not to return and instead, joined his wife in New York. In 1966, they reunited with the daughter who had remained in Cuba during the years between.
His life took a downturn personally when they moved to Las Vegas. He played at the major casinos but also gambled heavily. So, apparently at his wife’s urging, the family returned to New York. During the 60s and 70s, he played with Tito Puente and other leading Latin bands of the decades.
More rough times came when Cachao moved next to Miami. According to the interview with one musician who wanted to hire the legendary bassist, Cachao had no car and needed to use a rented instrument. Things changed when he ran into Andy Garcia. The actor produced a documentary on Cachao in 1993 and that led to the recording and release of albums that put the musician back on the main stage, even earning him a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. The first album sponsored by Garcia and later a second, “Ahora Si!” both won him a Grammy. He wrote the title track for the Buena Vista Social Club album, another Grammy winner. In 2006, Cachao performed live at the JVC Jazz Festival in Carnegie Hall and in London at age 88 (video clip on You Tube), the year before he died.
In spite of his incredible accomplishments and contributions, those who knew Cachao recall him as a humble man with a sense of humor who was devoted to music and family throughout a marriage that lasted 58 years.