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Chucho Valdes welcomes us with a Cohiba between his fingers and we quickly noticed his way of puffing on it.

“Peruchin, in my opinion the maestro of Latin jazz modern piano and probably one of the most original pianists Cuba has ever had, used to play with his cigar. And not resting on the ashtray, no way. He used to get his inspiration from puffing on it and inhaling the smoke. His best jam sessions and riffs were accompanied by billows of smoke.

“Earl Hines also used to play with a cigar, just like other famous jazz pianists. I mean, it seems to be that the aroma can actually trigger very positive feelings and energies. It happens to me too and sometimes that’s how I sit down to write songs as I puff on my cigar and billow smoke. It’s kinda hip, you know.”

But this tie between Chucho Valdes and the habano probably came before he was even born. His grandpa was a cigar factory reader and retired from the tobacco industry. We also know that his father Bebo Valdes, with whom he recorded an album that still grab headlines in many publications from around the world, also smoked cigars for many years.

“I started playing piano at the age of 3, according to my dad. He taught me all Cuban rhythms, danzon, cotillion, the different son styles, South American music –something he taught me pretty well. I also recall how much I liked Brazilian music since I was a little kid. I had that kind of school and I could also get closer to jazz by the hand of Tropicana, the place where my dad used to work and a tremendous jazz center. On the other hand, I had private teachers from who I learned other things, like the different techniques. And back in the house we used to practice, the two of us.

“He sometimes used to teach how to play bass sounds with him playing on the right side. Some other times he used to sit on the left side with me playing the right side and he doing the bass sounds. Then he would tell me it was my turn to play both sides. When I finally learned well, we used to make a repertoire for the family.

“Thus, when we decided to record the album, we agreed to do it that way. It was right for me because I’m grown up now and I know his style pretty well while I created my own. Then, it’s an album with Chucho being Chucho and Bebo being Bebo, two artists with a common starting point that went on separate ways as time rolled on, due to generational gaps.”

Together Forever is the title of the abovementioned album that nabbed the National Music Award in Spain, a Latin Grammy in 2009 and was nominated for the American Music Grammy Awards in the Latin Jazz category. He says: “It was not that much of a dream of ours but rather of my grandma’s, Caridad Amaro. She used to tell me, ‘hurry up so you could play with your father and I want to see you play with your dad.’ So, for me this is the greatest thing that could possibly come to pass because I never thought I could one day cut an album with him, share a CD with him, with a man who’s now in the record books. So, that’s why I get speechless when I try to explain the emotion I feel.”

“I think this concert is going to be something different …”

When it now seems he could easily rest on his laurels, maestro Chucho Valdes has set out on new pathways with a new album he has called “Chucho’s Steeps” with a band known as the Afro-Cuban Messengers. This particular work that has absorbed a considerable chunk of his time in recent months will be released during the opening night of the 12th Habano Festival.

“The idea about the concert has a lot to do with the perspective of my new concept, I mean, adding two brass instruments to the band, plus percussionist Dreisser Durruti, a guy who knows the African drums pretty well, let alone he can sing and dance.

“At the same time, I was very excited with the idea of inviting Ivan Lins, someone I’m a very good friend of and have made albums with. He’s a very inspirational songwriter who churns out superb melodies. You like his music the minute you listen to him for the first time. He’s a great singer with a hell of a voice and a very nice way of saying things, and who also plays piano pretty well. For this occasion I want to get back the Brazilian songs, some of the tunes he’s written for soap operas, just because Cuban music and Brazilian music share the same roots.

“And I’ve also invited a singer from Portugal, the most popular crooner in that country as we speak. She’s broken all previous records in all ways and she’s a young talented singer whose favorite style is fado, Portugal’s traditional music, very beautiful music. Her name is Mariza and I can say she’s one of the best female voices I’ve heard in my whole life, with out-of-the-way vocal skills.

“I recorded for her in her latest album entitled Tierra, that was nominated for the Grammy Awards, and later on I was with her at the Jazz Festival in the Netherlands. So, I urged her to resume that work and bring her together with Ivan Lins.

“She’s going to sing boleros that we performed together in Holland and they brought down the house there. It’s going to be the first time the three of us share the same stage, so I must say this Habano concert is going to be one for the books.”

So, Chucho Valdes hinted at some of his ideas for this opening gala of the Habano Festival, an event that bears watching because the music and the guest stars are going to open the first night of a weeklong celebration in which the most coveted vitolas will bask in the limelight once again as their aroma wafts up in the air in the same subtle way that inspires this great Cuban musician.

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