Valdés played piano from an early age and was very active as a performer, composer, arranger, and musical director at various Havana nightclubs, throughout the 40s and on into the 50s. During these years, he was also playing and arranging for numerous recording dates. Very highly regarded within the Cuban musical world, Valdés worked with many artists, including Mario Bauza and Ernesto Lecuona. With the growth of Afro-Cuban music worldwide, Valdés toured Europe and the USA. In 1960, unhappy with the new political power in Cuba, Valdés left his homeland, taking up residence in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1963.