Buena Vista Social Club diva Omara Portuondo thrills a capacity Laxson crowd
By the time Chico Performances director Dan DeWayne took the stage to welcome guests to this night’s concert, the packed house in Laxson Auditorium was already buzzing with excitement.
DeWayne characterized the show as “a dream of mine” for some time, to present some of the legendary Havana musicians made famous by the Oscar-nominated Wim Wenders documentary and Grammy-winning companion album, Buena Vista Social Club.
But even more special, as DeWayne pointed out, was that the warm tropical music we were about to enjoy was so powerful and life-affirming in its universal messages that it could aspire to the highest goals of art: It could unite nations—as he pointed to better relations that now seem to exist between the United States and Cuba. Poignant stuff that amped the crowd even more.
Featuring a groove-friendly six-man brass team in back, three percussionists (two sitting with congas and bongo, one standing with timbales), a pianist, a stand-up double bassist, a zoot-suited acoustic guitarist (who resembled a young Ibrahím Ferrer from the film), plus a lanky bandleader who occasionally played trombone —the group was outstanding from the get-go. Laying down a thick Cuban sound straight from the dance halls, the band began working out an infectious beat that quickly lured 72-year old vocalist Omara Portuondo, who appeared from the wings to massive applause that would be sustained throughout the energetic two-hour-plus concert.
Wearing a white suit and aqua-blue shirt, Portuondo proved to be the consummate show woman. By the end of the night, I would lose count of how many standing encores she and her backers would inspire. The whole concert had the air of authenticity, since everything spoken was in Cuban Spanish—even the between-song banter. But though many of those in attendance might not have understood every word, the underlying messages were evident through body language and the music itself.
I can’t emphasize how great the Laxson crowd was, constantly keeping a loud clap beat going, shouting encouragements, spilling into the aisles and, by the end, crowding down front to dance before the obviously delighted band members.
Portuondo was stunning in the quiet moments when she sang traditional tunes—particularly during the encore medley that included “Silencio,” the heartbreakingly beautiful song that provided the film version with one of its finest moments when, after Portuondo sings the words, “If the flowers in my garden see my sadness they will surely wither and die,” Ferrer gently uses his handkerchief to wipe a tear from her eye.
Other highlights included: some brief but enjoyable flute solos; a young 23-year old trumpet player, Miguelito, who sparked the crowd with some call-and-response blowing during an instrumental break; an even younger bongo player named Julito who, with youthful flare, beat his chest in rhythm to his lightning-quick percussion; and the precise guitar work of the slick man in front, Papi Oviedo, who teased the rhythm between notes with his acoustic guitar and even had his own note-for-note showdown with Portuondo shadowing his solo. Afterwards, the two danced cheek-to-cheek, evoking wild applause from the crowd as they shuffled closer and closer to the ground—another exhilarating moment.
But perhaps my favorite moments of the night were these two: One came after a particularly strong round of applause for the young trumpet player’s first solo, when he was greeted afterward with a warm, congratulatory hug from the elder bandleader. The other was when someone handed a tiny Cuban flag to Portuondo, who waved it emphatically as she did pretty much everything this evening. These two snapshots of goodwill were characteristic of the all-around joy that the concert created—one big hug between the audience and players and between two different countries coming together in the spirit of some wonderful music.