A Cuban tribute to New Orleans: New composition is powerful musical prayer

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 Dec. 4 evening in Havana’s Mella Theater during the close of Jazz Plaza 2005, Cuba’s yearly jazz festival.

“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 Louis 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 National Chorus, and 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 in the concert, 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.

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.

Mary Murray is an NBC news producer based in Havana.