That the Latin music industry is obsessed with youth, packageable personalities and a marketable product with crossover potential is hardly news. And some recent successes -- think Ricky Martin, Paulina Rubio or Enrique Iglesias -- indicate that the payoff can be substantial. But what has been hidden in plain sight is that in recent years it has been Latin music's wise elders who have been producing some of the most meaningful, graceful -- and yes, profitable -- work.

The sessions by the Cuban collective Buena Vista Social Club, an obvious example, became an artistic and commercial phenomenon. The 1997 CD by that name sparked a cottage industry of traditional Cuban music and made international stars of the late singer and guitarist Compay Segundo, an unlikely leading man at 90; the late pianist Ruben Gonzalez, who recorded his first album at 78; and singer Ibrahim Ferrer, who started a solo career and won a Latin Grammy as best new artist at 72.

But they were not the only ones.

Miami-based Cuban bass player and bandleader Israel "Cachao" Lopez, 85, created the mambo but toiled in semi-obscurity in the United States for decades until his rediscovery in the 1990s. And while for most jazz fans Cuban pianist, composer, arranger and bandleader Ramon "Bebo" Valdes, 85, long in exile in Sweden, has been merely a footnote as the father of pianist Chucho Valdes, he was one of the central figures in the golden age of Cuban music in the 1940s and '50s. He was nudged out of retirement in 1994. Both Lopez and Valdes have since won Grammys.

Now each, coincidentally, has released a new album.

Cachao, as he's simply known, had played with the Havana Philharmonic and established his name with some of the great orchestras of Cuba when in 1937 with his brother Orestes, a pianist, composer and arranger, he created the mambo, a faster, syncopated variation of the stately danzon.

"Orestes and I created it at home," he once said. "I can't really tell you the circumstances. We would just take turns at the piano and try things out. . . . At some point we just realized that this rhythm was not common."

From there, the story takes a winding path, including a fabled set of recorded jam sessions or descargas -- still a novel idea in the Cuban music milieu of 1957 -- a brief self-exile in Spain in 1962 and a move to New York a year later. Cachao went on to anchor some of the great bands in Latin music at the time, including those of Tito Rodriguez, Jose Fajardo and Eddie Palmieri. But eventually came lean years, in which he made do playing restaurants, weddings and bar mitzvahs ("I even played at a divorce," he once deadpanned) before being rediscovered in 1989 by Cuban American actor and music aficionado Andy Garcia.

That led to a tribute concert, a documentary and three recordings. In 1994, his "Master Sessions Vol. 1" won a Grammy, and a year later he received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts at a White House ceremony.

Recorded in 14 hours, Cachao's new album "{iexcl}Ahora Si!" ("Now, Yes!") is a descarga. As such, it has the loose feel, many of the charms and some of the shortcomings of a jam session -- albeit an exceptional one. "When I got to the studio there was nothing, no music," he recalled recently. "So we got to work."

The material might be slight at times, but the quality and sheer vitality of the playing carries the day. And then there's the maestro. Backed by a strong band, including timbalero Orestes Vilato, tresero Nelson Gonzalez (the tres is a small, guitarlike instrument with six strings), saxophonist Rafael "Tata" Palau and violinist Federico Britos, Cachao is in fine form, anchoring the music forcefully and with casual exactitude. Check his booming, elephantine push on "No Tienes Porque Llorar" ("You Don't Have Reason to Cry") or his clockwork pulse in "Una Descarga a Cachao" ("A Jam for Cachao"). Skyscrapers have been built on lesser foundations.

But Cachao can also bring forth an old-time elegance. In "Guajira Clasica" ("Classic Country Song") he seems to hold the simmering groove with silences, and in Cuban pianist Bola de Nieve's ballad "Si Me Pudieras Querer" ("If You Could Love Me"), he underscores the melodies with some delicate bowing.

"{iexcl}Ahora Si!" was recorded in a few hours but was a lifetime in the making.

Considering their generational and cultural differences, the collaboration between Bebo Valdes, 85, and flamenco singer Diego Jimenez Salazar, 35, suggests, like Cachao's project, a product of wisdom, courage and chance -- but of a different order altogether.

In "Lagrimas Negras" ("Black Tears"), a profoundly original reinterpretation of several classics of the Ibero-American songbook, the two have created one of the great records in Latin music, of this or any year. Last week it received five Latin Grammy nominations.

A conservatory-trained musician, Valdes was house pianist, bandleader and music consultant at Havana's fabled Tropicana nightclub. He arranged for top Cuban singers and entertainers, accompanied visiting stars like Nat King Cole, wrote influential compositions and in 1952, at a session for producer Norman Granz, recorded the first descarga.

In 1959 he formed his fabled Sabor de Cuba orchestra, featuring singer Rolando La Serie. But only a year later, feeling a growing unease about the direction of Fidel Castro's revolution, he left for Mexico. He stayed 18 months, moved to Spain, toured Europe and eventually married and settled in Sweden. After a few busy years, his professional career took a back seat to his family life. In 1990 he retired.

But Cuban saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, inspired in part by Cachao's rediscovery, nudged Valdes back into the studio in 1994 to record "Bebo Rides Again." It became an unexpected new beginning. He has since won a Grammy and Latin Grammy in 2002 for "El Arte del Sabor," a trio recording.

Singer Diego, known as El Cigala (the crawfish), is a leading figure in contemporary flamenco. He has a strong but not overpowering voice that often seems to fray at the edges of a word, suggesting a disarming vulnerability. And though his style is steeped in the tradition, El Cigala is part of a generation that, encouraged by the work of artists like Paco de Lucia, has not been afraid to experiment with African music and jazz. It was El Cigala who asked filmmaker Fernando Trueba to introduce him to Valdes after seeing him in Trueba's 2000 film "Calle 54," his ode to Latin jazz.

Improbably, the encounter between the elder Afro Cuban maestro with the gentlemanly, Old World style and the young, brash, hard-living gypsy was, as Valdes once put it, "love at first sight." "Lagrimas Negras" certainly speaks of a fascinating bond.

El Cigala has a fiercely focused delivery and impeccable timing and intonation. He also sounds fearless. He has a whole flamenco vocabulary of cries, but here he also displays a surprisingly nuanced vocabulary of silences.

Like all great singers, he's a believable storyteller -- something especially remarkable here, where nearly every song comes from a different tradition and poses a different technical and emotional demand. The title track, written by Cuban composer Miguel Matamoros, has a Caribbean swing, while "Niebla del Riachuelo," a classic tango, rolls in like a dense fog of loss and regret. An edge of spite is required for "La Bien Paga" ("The Well Paid"), an old copla (a traditional Spanish song style), but Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes's "Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar" ("I Know I Will Love You"), sung in Portuguese, must be a whispered promise. (Caetano Veloso does a marvelous cameo here that plays as perfect counterpoint to El Cigala's performance.) At some point, El Cigala will break your heart, or make you hold your breath or shake your head. It's that kind of performance.

Aided by a small, ever-changing group, including the invaluable Javier Colina on bass, El Pirana on cajon (wooden box), D'Rivera on sax and Federico Brito on violin, Valdes is both foil and instigator. He has a crisp, unsentimental touch and can be a self-effacing accompanist one moment and a bully the next, pushing things along with quick runs. Moreover, he unfolds his performance with an arranger's sense of development and balance. Like El Cigala, Valdes is a romantic -- but he has 50 years on the singer and so, in one flurry of notes, he can both empathize with his passionate cries of love and mock them.

If all this sounds too precious, too demanding for mass consumption, it might be worth noting that, without a publicity campaign, "Lagrimas Negras" has sold more than 260,000 copies in Spain alone and has been in the Top 10 there for 30 weeks.

"No record of mine, not even the one I did with Nat King Cole in Havana in '58" -- "Cole Espanol" -- "has sold what this album has sold," Valdes said recently. "Why is this happening? I think it's the hand of God, because none of this is that new or that modern but rather a little bit of this and a little bit of that. But Spain was tired of hearing the same thing over and over. All they heard for weeks on end was 'Operacion Triunfo' " -- the Spanish version of "American Idol" -- "and everybody in it sounded the same. . . . I think at some point anybody doing something a little different would have been a hit."

Commercial success aside, each in its own way, "{iexcl}Ahora Si!" and "Lagrimas Negras" speak of a wisdom and grace that are the work of a lifetime. In these dumbed-down, ungraceful times, that alone qualifies them as required listening.

Latin jazz greats Israel "Cachao" Lopez and Ramon "Bebo" Valdes, both 85, have released new albums, and won Grammys, long after their supposed heydays had passed.Cuban jazz pianist Bebo Valdes, 85, has collaborated with flamenco vocalist Diego Jimenez Salazar (known as El Cigala), 35, on a new CD, "Lagrimas Negras."Bassist Israel "Cachao" Lopez in the recording studio with actor Andy Garcia, above, whose discovery of Cachao 15 years ago led to a career rebirth.