Back in the 1990s, Buena Vista Social Club took the world by storm. The album, inspired by the music played at a Havana members club, both celebrated and cemented the fluid formidability of popular pre-revolution Cuban music performed by Cubans. It sold over five million units worldwide, and notched a Grammy Award as well (the recording was so popular that Wim Wenders made a documentary about the musicians). The smooth syncopated verve on that record remains timeless, yet several of the musicians and vocalists from that recording have passed away. However, their legacy continues through the remaining members of that same crew integrated with exceptional new talent. Before Elian, the missile crisis and Fidel, there was the party; and for a hundred magical minutes at Valley Performing Arts Center, the audience enjoyed VIP treatment from this dynamite ensemble, now referred to as Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club.
Omara Portuondo is proof that age does not have to determine one’s ability, gusto or spark. She scuttled across the stage, playfully lifted her dress and, most important, sang exquisitely. Portuondo’s pipes are still smooth after all these years, whether it’s holding out the final note twenty seconds longer than the band or sputtering out rapid-fire phrases. Eliades Ochoa, affectionately referred as the “Cuban Johnny Cash,” fired up the audience with his voracious gusto on guitar and his spry staccato baritone voice.
The most impressive of all the performers was Barbarito Torres, whose musicianship is as accomplished as his interpretation of the music. You could actually feel the passion in every perfectly performed note. The most fun of the evening was when he performed the laúd behind his back, but not before scratching his behind against it (the laúd is a plectrum-plucked chordophone belonging to the cittern family, somewhat resembling a lute).
Of the new recruits, Rolando Luna and Carlos Calunga stood out as sure-to-be mainstays of this ensemble. Luna’s dazzling dexterous digits glided across the piano flawlessly, while Calunga’s resonant, full-bodied voice worked well either standing out on its own or carrying a duet with the inimitable Portuondo. Guajiro Mirabal had a rough night on trumpet, but as Rosemary Clooney intimated to her nephew George about her later performances, “I’ve already hit my notes, but now they come to watch me perform.” Still, it was a delight to watch a part of history in the flesh.
The tightness of Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club is exceptional, and indeed the smooth supple rhythm they keep up throughout is astonishing. It’s excellent because it sits in your subconscious; you’re free to enjoy the other elements of the performance because of how accomplished, subtle, and excellent the players are as a rhythm section; it allows the accents of the singers and soloists to shine against a beautiful backdrop. The evening was like sipping on a piña colada along the playa at sunset. And when it was over, I wanted to come out to the same spot and enjoy it all over again.
photos from Buena Vista’s European Tour
Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club
Valley Performing Arts Center in Northridge
played September 18, 2013
for future VPAC shows, call (818) 677-3000 or visit http://www.valleyperformingartscenter.org
for tours and dates, visit http://www.buenavistasocialclub.com/