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A hundred years of Bebo Valdés

Biograher Mats Lundhal with his book.
Biograher Mats Lundhal with his book. / J.S.
  • The Swedish biographer of the Cuban pianist talks of the life of one of Benalmádena's most famous residents who would have been a hundred years old next week

The renowned Cuban pianist Bebo Valdés (1918-2013) would have turned 100 years old on 9 October. Bebo was the last living legend of the Golden Age of Cuban Music. His son Chucho Valdés and flamenco singer Diego El Cigala, with whom Bebo recorded his million-selling 2003 comeback album Lágrimas Negras, are among the artists who will pay tribute to the pianist next month at the Barcelona International Jazz Festival.

Bebo Valdés reached the peak of his career after turning 85 and moved from Stockholm to Arroyo de la Miel, Benalmádena. During the last years of his life the world was his workplace: constant tours, recordings and making movies. Bebo's friend Mats Lundahl, a professor at the Stockholm School of Economics and author of the book Bebo de Cuba: Bebo Valdés and His World (2015), remembers those days well:

"In Spain you could hear his music everywhere, outdoors on loudspeakers," says Lundahl. "He could barely make it to the streets. He lived in Benalmádena. If he went out people would come and shake his hands, get an autograph, have their photo taken with him. He went into a cafe in Madrid and the whole cafe stood up and started to applaud when he walked in," he says.

Bebo went to Sweden with the popular orchestra Lecuona Cuban Boys in 1963. He was 44, but there he fell in love with 18-year-old Rose Marie Persson and resettled in Stockholm.

In Havana, Bebo had been a famous arranger and pianist who wrote charts for the best singers and bands. He taught Spanish to Nat King Cole and played piano in five tracks in the notorious Cole en Español album, recorded in Havana in 1958. In the fifties Bebo had been the house arranger and pianist at the Tropicana Night Club. He had a five-year recording contract with Decca.

Bebo went to exile in 1960, leaving his wife and five children, including Chucho, in Cuba, and lived in Mexico and US before his European tour with the Cuban Boys.

In Stockholm, where he had two more children with Rose Marie, Raymond and Rickard, he remained in obscurity, playing for more than 30 years in hotel bars and on cruises between Sweden and Finland.

"He was never really introduced to Swedish audiences. He was not involved with the local Latin American scene either," Lundahl remembers. The writer first heard Bebo playing live in Stockholm in 1991 with a band called Hot Salsa and went to introduce himself to the artist before the concert.

They became good friends: "One day in 1994 Bebo called me and said: I got something for you. It was the record Bebo Rides Again. It was a knock-out, high-class record, an eight-piece band with Paquito D'Rivera on alto sax and clarinet. Then I really understood how good this guy was. And then when he made his comeback I could follow it day by day," explains Lundahl.

D'Rivera had organised a recording session with exiled Cuban musicians and saved Bebo from oblivion. Spanish musicians and producers had heard Bebo Rides Again and were impressed by his playing and arrangements.

Spanish connection

Suddenly there was an unexpected opportunity for Bebo to make records in Barcelona.

Spanish film director Fernando Trueba would be the catalyst that made him an icon in Spain and launched his second international career.

"He was the one catapulting Bebo into the international artists' space through his movies, and he founded a record company probably with the only intention of recording Bebo. Trueba's idea of putting Bebo and El Cigala together was, of course, great. Later he [Trueba] wrote the foreword for my book. I was planning to write about Bebo really before his comeback," says the writer.

Lundahl explains how the interviewing and writing of the book took five years from 2002 to 2007. "I started to interview him under many circumstances. We started in Brandberg, Stockholm. I would typically go his house around 10 o'clock to avoid the morning rush. He would always make lunch for me. Then we sat until late afternoon: interviewing, listening to records and tapes, digging for newspaper clippings and letters, contracts, tour schedules," says the writer.

"His wife Rose Marie always helped me with details of Bebo's life," he continues. "She was always around. I spent more than 150 hours sitting with Bebo. At one point I asked Rose Marie, aren't you fed up with me because I keep coming here every week and occupy your living room?"

When Bebo gave concerts in Spain Lundahl, who has a summer home in Torremolinos, interviewed him in Malaga, Nerja and Cadiz. After Bebo and Rose Marie moved to Benalmádena in 2005 he interviewed him there.

Fernando Trueba says in Mats' book that after Bebo and his wife moved to Malaga his life changed. He was living there practically all the time. People recognised him and showed their admiration, respect and love in the streets of Barcelona as well as in Madrid.

"They had the idea of getting a place in Spain and they knew about my place. It was an old dream," says Lundahl adding that Rose Marie told him that she wished they had moved to Spain 30 years previously.

"They had a nice apartment in Benalmádena, not big but very well planned, only two stops and a five-minute walk from my place," he says.

When Rose Marie died and Bebo developed Alzheimer's it started to get complicated, explains Lundahl. "Finally, their son Rickard decided to bring him back to Stockholm two weeks before he died. [The book] Bebo de Cuba is dedicated to the memory of Rose Marie - Bebo's life companion for over forty-five years.

"I remember talking to Bebo one day on the phone. All of a sudden, he says: 'Divino!' I said what's divine? The book. So, he was very with about it and his sons were also happy with it," concludes the Swedish writer.

Juhani Similä is a Finnish ethnomusicologist and writer who lives in Malaga. He has taught History of Cuban Music at the University of Helsinki.

Mats Lundahl is a professor at Stockholm School of Economics. He has published 64 books internationally in English and Spanish.