Old Man Bebo: Amazing Documentary on Cuban Musical Giant

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bebo photo
Bebo Valdes (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Bebo Valdes (1918-2013) is a giant of Cuban music, but an artist that isn’t appreciated enough or even known at all. Maybe because he was forced to leave Cuba by a young and repressive Castro regime, leaving to reside permanently in Sweden. There, he worked as an Arctic Circle hotel pianist playing old fisherman songs for the patrons. It was only because of his 2004 duet album with flamenco singer Diego El Cigala that anybody really heard about him. That and also because he’s the patriarch, the man behind son Chucho Valdes and up-and-coming grandson Chuchito Valdes.

I discovered that there is a 2008 film documentary on Bebo. It’s called Old Man Bebo; a humorous title by Carcas after Bebo recorded a solo version of “Old Man River”. The film maker is by a Cuban-American film maker Carlos Carcas, who met Bebo while filming Spanish director’s Fernando Trueba’s latin music documentary Calle 54. The more time Carcas spent filming Bebo–who was already an old man nearing 90–the more he was convinced that the world needed to know more about this fascinating artist and man. People knew Bebo from the Lagrimas Negras album with El Cigala, but they knew nothing about his previous life and career in Cuba and his days as Music Director of Havana’s great nightclub, the Tropicana. (Click here to listen to a past Café LA program that talks about that famous club.)

Once a musician leaves “La Isla”, they are banned from Cuban airwaves and everything else. The same happened to giants like Celia Cruz too. Carcas was also stunned that Bebo was stuck in an Arctic Circle hotel bar playing cocktail stuff, an injustice for an artist of his stature. Carcas firmly realized that this was a story lost to history and politics that needed to be told. The good thing is that the film was completed while Bebo was still alive and that Bebo got to see it. He loved it and was thrilled. Son Chucho Valdes also loved the film. Chucho revered and loved his dad beyond measure.

old man bebo
2008 Documentary (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The sad thing is that this film is not available to rent or buy. There are links on Amazon and on Netflix, but it remains in an unavailable state. The only people who’ve seen it are people at movie festival showcases. But there is a vimeo version, and you can watch it here. I warn you, however, that you won’t be able to stop watching it. I watched it all the first day I got the link.

Here is the trailer for you to enjoy.

Watch the full documentary here. It’s almost 2 hours.