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Co-founded by members of Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna, Irakere (the name translates as forestation) is as much a musical laboratory as a band and inarguably one of the most important groups in Latin music history in general and Cuban music in particular. Its eclectic, often experimental approach has deeply influenced Afro-Cuban jazz as well the island's dance music. They employ traditional percussion instruments -- bata drums, güiro, claves, maracas, bongos, congas, cowbells, and erikundis, under and around brass, reeds, winds, electric keyboards, bass, and guitars -- to wed traditional Afro-Cuban folkloric sounds from Yoruba, Abakua, and Arara traditions with jazz, rock, and funk. Their 1975 set, Grupo Irakere on state label Areito, quickly won fans at home. The group toured internationally in 1977, playing jazz festivals. They recorded Irakere, issued in 1979 by Columbia, and Chekeré Son. Between 1975 and 1991, Irakere issued at least one recording annually. After a four-year break, they issued 1995's Bailando Asi and resumed annual releases through 2001's Pare Cochero; they continued performing and touring occasionally for a decade. In 2023 Mr. Bongo began reissuing the band's early catalog. Pianist Chucho Valdés (son of Cuban music legend Bebo Valdes) and veteran music director/arranger/conductor Armando de Sequeira Romeu, both members of Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna, founded Grupo Irakere as a state-sanctioned experimental, percussion-centric band to merge traditional sounds of Cuban folk with modern music -- jazz, funk, fusion, rock, and more. They were the first of the modern Cuban jazz groups. The band's original lineup signed to the state-owned Areito label, which released their live-in-studio demo album Teatro Amadeo Roldan Recital in 1974. Greeted with accolades from Cuba's music community, the band -- that included reed and woodwind players Paquito D'Rivera and Carlos Averhoff, trumpeters Jorge Varona and Arturo Sandoval, drummer Enrique Pla, bassist Carlos del Puerto, vocalists/percussionists Oscar Valdés and Armando Cuervo, and an army of percussionists, re-entered the studio after playing live gigs and honing new material. They released Grupo Irakere in 1976 and toured jazz festivals internationally for more than a year, among them the Belgrade Jazz Festival and the Warsaw Jazz Jamboree, two exceptionally well-known Eastern European (then part of the Soviet Union's Eastern Bloc) festivals. In 1978 the band shortened their name to Irakere and recorded live tracks at jazz festivals in Montreux, Switzerland, and Newport in America. Columbia edited five long tracks from these concerts to comprise the album Irakere. In 1979, it was simultaneously released by Areito in Havana and Columbia in the U.S. It sold well enough in the U.S. to make the jazz charts. Further, it took home a Grammy Award for best Latin Music Album in the U.S. Irakere also released a second album that year, Chékere Son, issued by Japan's JVC label. More influential musically, it introduced the Cubanized bebop horn lines now commonly used in Afro-Cuban jazz and the contemporary popular dance style, timba. Seasoned by ubiquitous touring, Irakere began evolving stylistically during the '80s. They began experimenting with songo, a Cuban genre developed by the group Los Van Van during the early '70s; it transformed historic and folkloric rhythmic elements from rhumba into popular dance music, altering the son montuno/mambo-based architecture that dominated Cuban popular music from the '40s on. This approach is amply evident on 1980's Cuba Libre on JVC and 2 from Columbia, particularly on the fusion jazz/dance cut "Xiomara." While critics in Europe and Japan embraced the release as the sound of jazz for the future, American critics by and large, didn't feel the same way and misunderstood the music. 1980 was also the year that Di Rivera defected to Venezuela before emigrating to the United States. He was replaced by saxophonist Germán Velazco. By the time Irakere issued 1985's Bailando Así, they'd fully embraced timba, weaving their brand of jazz through merengue, bolero, salsa and even samba. Single "Rucu Rucu A Santa Clara," became an international dancefloor smash. They followed a few months later with the primarily Latin jazz set Tierra En Trance. The following year, they engaged salsa, bolero, rhumba, and merengue on Tributo a Benny Moré in homage to the historic Cuban bandleader. As timba swept Cuba and the Caribbean at large during the '80s and '90s, some of Irakere's better records were featured in forward-thinking dance clubs in Miami and New York City. Irakere had become the timba dance band in Cuba and Latin America at the time, as evidenced by album sales of Quince Minutos (1987), Exuberancia (1991), Encontro Com Cuba (1992), and From Havana with Love (1996). The genre had reached its commercial and global peak by 1997, the year Irakere introduced timbalero vocalist Jose Miguel into its lineup and released the Grammy-nominated Babalú Ayé. Following its support tour, Chucho, still very much the leader of Irakere, opted to quit touring with them in favor of forming a jazz quartet, altering his career. His son Chuchito became the band's director through 1999, releasing Indestructible, devoted entirely to salsa, in 1998 and Yemayá in 1999 (titled after the Yoruban religion's water spirit) on Blue Note. It was billed to Chucho Valdes & Irakere. The pianist signed a solo deal with the label. Though he played electric keyboards throughout, alienating more conservative North American jazz critics, the album, a collision of burning Afro-Cuban jazz, timba, bolero, and funk, registered with listeners globally. The band issued its final album, Para Cochero, in 2001. They continued touring for several years. In 2010, the U.K.'s Far Out Recordings label reissued Cuba Libre to excellent reviews and dancefloor promotion from progressive DJs. Valdes paid Irakere tribute on tour in 2014 and 2015, celebrating the band's 40th anniversary. In 2023, the Mr. Bongo label, as part of its Cuban Classics series, remastered and reissued Teatro Amadeo Roldan Recital and Grupo Irakere in 2024.
© Thom Jurek /TiVo
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