Buena Vista Social Club Return Home for Historic Cuba Show
It’s been 20 years since Ry Cooder, British producer Nick Gold and Cuban musical director Juan de Marcos Gonzalez assembled a group of veteran Cuban musicians, christened them Buena Vista Social Club and recorded an album that would become a global phenomenon and sell more than 12 million copies worldwide. (And earn a spot on Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Albums of the Nineties.) Since then, the name – taken from a pre-revolution members-only club – has become as much brand as band, spawning an Oscar-nominated film, renewed interest in Cuban music and spinoff group Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club.
It’s the latter – comprised of four original members alongside family members of the original group and other players – that has kept the name active despite the deaths of multiple legends like Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo and Ruben Gonzalez. After an extensive “Adios Tour” around the world, the group returned to Havana’s Teatro Karl Marx Saturday night for a rapturous first of two shows.
Saturday’s concert was many things: a joyous victory lap; a mournful group eulogy; an act of historical preservation (a new documentary on the group is set for release next year); a nostalgia trip of traditional Cuban styles like son, mambo, guajira and bolero. But above all, it was a showcase and testament to the virtuosic skill of the current original players: laud player Barbarito Torres, guitarist Eliades Ochoa, trumpeter Manuel Mirabel and the incomparable vocalist Omara Portuondo.
Pianist Rolando Luna opened the show with a tribute to Gonzalez as video of the revered pianist, who died in 2003, played onscreen. It would be the first of six tributes to deceased members: an elegiac if painful reminder that 20 years ago, many of the album’s musicians were already playing with gray hairs and laugh lines. Perhaps due to the lack of surviving members, only six of the 20 songs on the set list were from the group’s debut, with the rest taken from last year’s Lost and Found compilation, members’ individual work, and Cuban and other standards (“Besame Mucho,”Quizas Quizas Quizas”).
As in past concerts, Torres and Mirabel played the entire show, with Ochoa and Portuondo making extended guest appearances. While Mirabel mostly played the background, Torres has always been one of the group’s flashiest members, shredding on the laud and, later, effortlessly playing behind his back in deft showmanship. Ochoa’s playing, as on “El Carretero,” was more mournful and romantic, in line with the Cuban country and blues he helped popularize.
But it was the 85-year-old Portuondo that remains the most charismatic and commanding. Like Aretha Franklin, Portuondo is all things to all people: a crooning, cooing chanteuse; a confident diva; a rousing master of ceremonies. For her five-song set, the singer commanded the crowd to clap, stand up and dance on “No Me Llores Mas” before segueing into a gorgeous version of her romantic ballad “Veinte Anos” with just piano accompaniment. “Besame Mucho” became a crowd sing-along, with Portuondo both leading and playfully teasing the audience.