The pioneering Cuban jazz band, Irakere, nurtured some of Cuba’s leading musicians who went on to gain international fame.
The band’s roots were in the state-sponsored, national showpiece big band, Orquesta Cubana De Musica Moderna, which in the 1960s fused Cuban big band music, jazz and elements of the Western symphonic tradition. While the OCMM was a great training ground for young musicians, the emphasis on arrangements over soloists did not suit the members who had grown up listening (surreptitiously) to their American jazz heroes.
By 1973, OCMM pianist Chucho Valdes and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera had formed the group called “Irakere,” which was the name of a drummer in Yoruba legend. Valdes and D’Rivera were both also composers and arrangers, and they wanted the focus of this new band to be experimental, reflecting the times, but incorporating Cuban and African traditions. They recruited from OCMM percussionist and singer Oscar Valdés, Emilio Morales [guitar], Carlos del Puerto [bass], Enrique Pla’ [drums] and Arturo Sandoval and Jorge Varona [trumpets].
Irakere became a musical laboratory, where innovations in both Afro-Cuban jazz and Cuban popular dance music were created. They soon became Cuba’s leading musical attraction. In 1978, after their performance at the Newport Jazz Festival, they became the first modern Cuban group to sign a US recording contract.
Sandoval and D’Rivera left the band in the 1980s, but Chucho Valdes added new young musicians and continued to tour the US and Europe. Irakere recorded for major labels like Blue Note Records and Rounder Records, winning several Grammy Awards.
“We didn’t know that we were going to have such an impact in jazz and Latin music around the world. We were just working to do something good.” –Paquito D’Rivera