Buena Vista Social Club featuring Omara Portuondo – Nottingham Royal Concert Hall, Wednesday March 16.
Thrust onto the global stage following the runaway success of its 1997 debut album (and the 1999 documentary film which followed), the Buena Vista Social Club has, for many people, been almost synonymous with Cuban music ever since. If there are younger, fresher, less traditional players out there, steering their country’s music in new directions, then most of us have yet to hear them. And given that most of the club’s members are on the far side of seventy, with a few players now entering their ninth decades, one has to wonder how many more chapters are left in this story of late-blooming good fortune.
Although many of the best-known characters from that first flush of international success – Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González, Compay Segundo – are no longer with us, the show rolls on with a shifting line-up. Star billing is now given to four players, one of whom – guitarist Manuel Galbán – was mysteriously absent from last night’s show. Trombonist Aguaje Ramos effusively led the band, while trumpeter Guajiro Mirabal – an incongruously sombre figure, who bore a curious resemblance to Alan Whicker – parped somewhat stiffly from the far right of the stage.
Saving her entrance for the second half of the two-hour show, the veteran singer Omara Portuondo enchanted the crowd from the moment that she stepped from the wings. At the age of eighty, her voice isn’t quite what it once was – but what she has lost in emotional range, she has made up for with enthusiastic, slightly self-mocking vigour. Cheekily referring to tres player Papi Oviedo as her husband – she is in fact single and very much available, as she revealed to the Post last week – Omara flirted with performers and audience alike, hitching her gown above her ankles and chanting “sexy, sexy” between numbers.
Omara’s presence lifted the whole mood of the show, after a somewhat tepid first hour that was mostly buoyed by the enormous goodwill of the crowd. As the newly energised players found their focus, the dancing began and the party got going.
As for the other players, pianist Rolando Luna erred at times towards an overly florid supper-club style, interspersing his solos with quotes from As Time Goes By and Yesterday. However, the best solo of the night came from percussionist Filiberto Sanches: a distinguished, almost professorial gentleman who suddenly sprang into action on his timbales, with a wonderful display of rhythmic dexterity. Other lead vocals were supplied by two of the younger members of the line-up – most notably by the elegant, statuesque Idania Valdes, who could well be a future star in the making.
As the night drew to its climax, the years fell away from the elderly musicians, and the flavour of Havana’s dance halls was successfully evoked. Two nights into their UK tour, with twenty-five dates still to come, the Social Club remain an unstoppable force, fuelled by the greatest tonic of them all: the sheer joy of making music.