Review: Old is gold for Cuban superstars
August 23, 2011
ASPEN – Buena Vista Social Club was never simply a project involving Cuban musicians – it was a project involving old Cuban musicians, guys who have been playing around Havana for decades, sharpening their skills and deepening their musical personalities: the 90-something singer-guitarist Compay Segundo, the 80-ish pianist Ruben Gonzalez, the septuagenarian singer Ibrahim Ferrer. Just how much old age was a hallmark of the group was in evidence Sunday night, when Buena Vista – billed as the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club – made its local debut at the Aspen District Theatre. Eight of the members who had been part of the group when it formed in 1997 were not in Aspen; they had died.
I entered the theater Sunday with ominous thoughts: Even if the band could replicate the Afro-Cuban sounds, no way was this going to be like the original article. You don’t replace 80-year-old musicians; when they go, they take something unique with them. And when the concert began, with a few old-ish musicians – especially the 55-year-old, gray-haired laud player, Barbarito Torres, at center-stage – surrounded by some younger folks, it seemed doomed to disappoint. In addition to the players on stage, there was the venue itself, which features an unpromisingly vast distance between the band and the audience.
Maybe 45 minutes into the show, I was dancing (somewhat halfheartedly) on the side of the stage, not even looking at the band, when I noticed that a shift had taken place. I looked up to see that Omara Portuondo, billed as the featured singer, had made her entrance. Everything changed. The music changed, the audience changed, the air changed.
The presence of Portuondo proved my point that what this party needed was some old energy. Portuondo – short, stout, slightly stooped, with her hair piled on her head – is 80, and what she brought to the stage was deep and unmistakable, and couldn’t have been embodied by a musician in, say, her 60s. Portuondo was a presence, and a magnificent singer as well.
What she apparently didn’t have was stamina; her appearance lasted just a few songs. But by the time she exited, she had made her mark. Portuondo’s energy made an elevated platform for singer Carlos Calunga and trombonist/bandleader Jesus “Aguaje” Ramos to connect to the audience. The crowd repeatedly rose to its feet, the music grew in intensity, the band took on a personality.
Respect your elders. They rock.