"When I die, I don't want anybody to cry. I want you to throw a party and dance and get drunk."
Before his death last Friday at age 94, I heard him say this many times. Bebo was a child. One look at his playful eyes and wide, infectious smile and you knew it. He was also a modest man, who awarded more importance to others than to himself. He was not ambitious, although he was proud - especially of his son Chucho, and of a job well done. He was an impeccable professional who always arrived on time, always looked elegant, and was invariably kind to everyone.
In the lovely documentary by Carlos Carcas, Old Man Bebo, you see Pío Leyva, one of many people whom Bebo helped out throughout his life, exclaim: "Bebo Valdés..." then his voice trails off, his eyes well up with tears, and he adds in a sigh that seems to come straight out of his soul: "What a good person!"
Very likely Bebo cared more about this than about anything else, including music, his own work and his career - things that he did not hesitate to sacrifice in the early 1960s to make sure his new family wanted for nothing. He was not a religious man, although he believed that the same single god was behind all religions.
I could go to Cuba with Castro in the presidency. As long as Cubans elected him"
Bebo did not like to talk about politics, but there was hardly an interview in which he was not asked about Cuba or Castro. Somebody once told him: "So you never plan to return to Cuba as long as Castro is still alive, then." Bebo, looking surprised, replied: "Why do you say that? Yes, I could return to Cuba with a living Castro, absolutely. Even with Castro in the presidency. That is, as long as he is there because Cubans have elected him." Is it possible to display greater moral rectitude?
I once convinced him to record a solo piano album. Those were wonderful days, just the two of us spending time in rehearsal and recording studios in Madrid, with no concerns other than music. Ned Sublette (author of Cuba and its music) came up to me in New York one day and said. "I want you to know that Bebo is the best Cuban music album ever recorded, anytime, anyplace."
I think that this album contains both Bebo's and Cuba's soul - bare, without ornaments. It was the last thing that [exiled Cuban writer Guillermo] Cabrera Infante listened to before dying in a London hospital. Tears rolled down his eyes as he heard it, and I thought to myself, 'He has died in Cuba.' I told Bebo about it and we dedicated the album to him.
Guillermo died in London. Bebo died in Stockholm. What kind of government makes its best musician and its best writer die so far away from home?
The last time I visited him in his home in Benalmádena (Málaga), he suddenly said to me: "You know? I'd like to go to Cuba." I couldn't believe it. I had never heard that sentence from him. "I think that's fine, Bebo. No Castro can stop you from doing whatever you want. But it's a very long trip, and I'm not sure you're up to it." Yet I could imagine him hugging his brother Arsenio, kissing his children, Miriam, Mayra, Raúl, his grandchildren... "I would like to see my parents," he added. And then I thought I knew what was going on: his mind was failing him, like it had on so many occasions in recent times. But actually, his mind was quite clear: "I want to visit their grave."
I met him when I offered him a role in [Latin jazz documentary] Calle 54 and it was "love at first sight." Between 2000 and 2010 we made eight albums and four movies together. We traveled throughout Spain, the US and Brazil, and talked for hours, days, months, from dawn until dusk. All of those moments are precious to me. His humanity, kindness, joy and innocence were truly disarming.
When he played, his hands gave you the feeling that the mystery lay there: they were strong and delicate, like his music. Bebo did not play the piano, he caressed it. His sense of time was magical, and he could leave you suspended between two notes. He was in possession of "the secret," something that goes beyond technique or virtuosity. Just one note of his could transport you to another continent, another era. Bebo was the real thing.
I had the tremendously good fortune of meeting Bebo Valdés and the privilege of being his friend, and for that, I thank life once again.