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Cuban jazz star pays tribute to New Orleans

Legendary jazz pianist Chuchu Valdés pays tribute to the people and music of New Orleans in a new composition titled “Canto a Dios” or “Song to God.” NBC News Mary Murray reports from Havana.
/ Source: NBC News

HAVANA— Legendary jazz pianist Chucho Valdés pays tribute to the people and music of New Orleans in a new composition titled “Canto a Dios” or “Song to God.”

The world-renowned musician said he wrote his musical prayer in the hope that the world would be spared another Katrina, the colossal hurricane that ravaged New Orleans and other U.S. Gulf Coast towns this past August.

The City of Jazz holds special meaning for the three-time Grammy winner, Valdés explained. Back during his December, 2000 American tour, New Orleans city officials made the Cuban musician an honorary citizen.

Valdés performed “Canto a Dios” for the first time Sunday evening in Havana’s Mella Theater during the close of Jazz Plaza 2005, Cuba’s yearly jazz festival.

A tribute to New Orleans
“This is a song about love, peace, humanity,” explained Valdés to a packed audience that roared its agreement. “It’s a tribute to New Orleans, the city’s history, the birthplace of blues, ragtime and jazz, to Luis Armstrong, the Marsalis brothers, Fats Domino and all the other musicians.”

During the concert, Valdés enlisted the help of his quartet, Cuba’s National Symphonic Orchestra and Cuba’s National Chorus along with his sister, throaty jazz vocalist Mayra Caridad Valdés.

In “Canto a Dios,” Valdés digressed from his tropical Afro-Cuban rhythms by playing down the Yoruban percussion sounds that so often mark his music and instead relying on his early classical training.

Valdés and his piano dominate this piece of music, switching between classic and electric keyboards. The piece started with a slow tempo piano before he deliberately added an accompaniment of soft strings.

At various moments, his playing yielded to the prayerful sounds of the chorus, his keyboards adding a soft undertone to their voices. At that point, the piece was almost more ethereal than earthy.

Perfect duet
But that changed when Mayra Caridad Valdés took center stage. Her vocals expressed the emotion of the human loss from Katrina, and Valdés met her note for powerful note.

At the debut of “Canto a Dios,” brother and sister formed a perfect duet.

As a local critic said, “lightning met thunder.”

Valdés pounded the keyboard as his sister's soulful voice gave strength to his lyrics; both paying homage to a city and its music that Valdés believes will one day recover.

Valdés plans to take “Canto a Dios” into the recording studio, making it the title track on his latest CD to be released next spring on the Egrem label. Having cut his first album in 1964 at the age of 23, the inexhaustible Valdés has 54 professional recordings to his name.

The “Canto a Dios” lyrics:

We grow from the experience

With time, a legacy of history and roots is ours

Legacies that inspire truth

The earth on which we live provides us with melodies of love

Who can forget the birthplace of blues and ragtime?

If we could have avoided the events, nothing would be the same

How many martyrs, how much shame could have been avoided

How much sadness that never will be forgotten

But men will always recover the beautiful music

So perfect

Born like a bird

Like the wind that crosses barriers and even the sea

When a song is real, it sows peace

It returns, pure and simple

With a message of brotherhood