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Chapotín loves to talk. There is practically no need to ask him any questions because he steadily weaves memories, views, and anecdotes together. He moves easily from one musical period of his life to another. “One thing I can say is that I am lucky to have been practically the only musician who played with Gonzalo Roig* and who is still active as a performer today,” he says before he quickly realizes that perhaps that was too absolute. He recalls the beginnings of Juan Formell, director of the famous band Los Van Van, when he was as bass player at the Habana Libre Hotel as well as and Chucho Valdés who played in Havana’s now defunct Musical Theatre and then in the Orquesta de Música Moderna. “I learned from everybody: Formell, Chucho, Adolfo Guzmán, Rafael Somavilla, Tony Taño, Manuel Duchesne, Michel Legrand…” he continues as he recites the many outstanding Cuban directors and composers.
Chapotín, as everybody calls him, was born in Cuba but grew up in the United States. When he was nine years old, his father decided that it was time for his son, grandnephew of the legendary Cuban trumpeter Félix Chapotín, to begin studying the instrument. He took him to the legendary Mario Bauzá who lived in New York City in 1930 with his friend Frank Grillo. These two musicians were the grandparents of Latin Jazz. Back in Cuba in his early teens, he continued to study at the National School of Art under Raymonel Orcutt, Filiberto Ojeda and the soloist of the National Symphony Orchestra Marcos Urbay.
He started to play professionally when he was only 14. Havana fascinated him right from the start. “There were many orchestras, many theaters. The ICRT (Cuban Institute of Radio and Television) had five orchestras performing every day!” he exclaims. He speaks of that time with passion and nostalgia, effortlessly recalling theaters, nightclubs, cabarets, hotels, shows and artists who populated the city nights. “I was a kid when I started performing, but I witnessed it all because I went out to experience it firsthand.”
Like Julius Caesar, he could very well say, “Vini, vidi, vinci”—I came, I saw, I conquered— for the young man became first trumpet of several orchestras, including the Gran Teatro de La Habana Orchestra, the Musical Theater Orchestra and the Tropicana Cabaret Orchestra.
Active military service interrupted his career. Luckily, the sounds from his trumpet continued even if they did become more martial when someone realized that he would serve better in a military band than in the special troops battalion.
Having completed his military service, he landed a spot on the National Radio and Television Orchestra. “I enjoyed that period in my life a lot because I’ve always liked to play with big orchestras, big bands and be part of big shows,” he confesses. Around the same time, he also collaborated with the Grupo de Experimentación Sonora del ICAIC, an experimental group whose members included many outstanding musicians and singer-songwriters, such as Silvio Rodríguez, Pablo Milanés, Pablo Menéndez and Emiliano Salvador.
The year 1988 saw the creation of NG La Banda and Timba, the most important popular dance and music genre in recent decades. Chapotín, who had been touring with the recently created Charanga Habanera—and which, he says, was “just another one of those orchestras that played Cuban traditional music,” joined the NG—New Generation—project led by José Luis Cortés as first trumpet of the horn section. Popularly known as The Horns of Terror, they became incredibly popular thanks to the fascinating music composed by Cortés and the impressive performances of the band’s musicians.
Chapotín recalls that “every two or three nights we played in a new neighborhood, which brought audiences closer to the new musical trend.” The band played at important festivals and venues, such as the Lincoln Center Festival, the North Sea Jazz Festival and the Montreux Jazz Festival, sharing the stage with such Salsa greats as Andy Montañés, Cheo Feliciano and Gilberto Santa Rosa. And Elpidio Chapotín was part of all this.
In 1996, when Timba was in full swing, the Cuban musician Juan de Marcos González and the American guitarist Ry Cooder brought together a number of legendary Cuban musicians for a recording that would be called the Buena Vista Social Club. In response to the strong competition represented by the Buena Vista Social Club, the directors of several salsa bands got together and formed the short-lived Team Cuba with a selection of musicians from different bands that would play the music of Los Van Van, NG La Banda, Adalberto Alvarez y su Son and Charanga Habanera (which had gained fame over the years). Needless to say, the first-rate trumpeter Chapotín was chosen for Team Cuba. He explains that “there was this fantastic show we did in Varadero once and another one at the Capitolio in Havana. We later did a short tour in Cuba and that was that.”
Chapotín has accompanied famous musicians, such as Elena Burke, Rosita Fornés, Pablo Milanés, Silvio Rodríguez and the award-winning Cuban classical pianist Frank Fernández. Today he is part of the Buena Vista Social Club as well as a show that goes by the name of The Buena Vista Bar. According to Chapotín, it is very demanding: “In this show you have to do a bit everything. You play, you sing, you dance. I perform right up front the stage and go down to the audience.”
Despite his long career, Chapotín is anything but tired. “I always say my time will pass when my health decides to call it quits, not when somebody makes that decision for me on account of my age. And whenever I get the chance to play a gig, I give my all and do my best. Work doesn’t scare me at all.”
Luckily for us, Chapotín is not slated for retirement just yet. We will see him playing with the Buena Vista guys, or accompanying Omara Portuondo, with whom he has established an excellent artistic relation.
Just before we leave, the outstanding musician lets us into his sentiments: “I have achieved everything I have ever wished for—playing the trumpet…and success with the ladies, because I’m in love with love!