Los Angeles Music Review: ORQUESTA BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB (Hollywood Bowl)

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by Tony Frankel on August 21, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles


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, which catapulted the group into becoming a global phenomenon. 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 has continued through the remaining members of that same crew integrated with exceptional new talent. Before Elian, the missile crisis, Fidel, and the new U.S. move towards normalizing relations with Cuba, there was the party. And that’s exactly what the sold-out crowd of nearly 18,000 came to see at the Hollywood Bowl last night. But not just the party—the final party. This is the Adios Tour for this dynamite ensemble, now referred to as Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club.


Lead vocalist 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, pianist Rolando Luna and vocalist 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.


And yet, the crowd was neither in full party mode nor disinterested. The spicy salsa normally associated with this brew was mild. In fact, the Club didn’t even offer a full night as they have at previous concerts; vocalist Diego El Cigala was the opening act. 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. But even with the remarkable work of Luna and others, the evening lacked magic and a sweet “adios” may be appropriate. Still, it was a delight to watch a part of history in the flesh and the film montages of original members Ibrahim Ferrer and Rubén González were gorgeous.


With his long wavy hair and full beard, Diego El Cigala looks like the earthy, fun-loving uncle who would grab a mike at a social function to wake up the room. But this astounding flamenco singer offered jazz ballads so powerful that the rowdy patrons became hushed with respect (remember, they came here to party). This pioneering Spaniard with soulful gypsy flamenco stylings offered an array of songs in his 50-minute set that were all rooted in Latin American music forms such as the bolero, tango and Afro-Caribbean jazz.

El Cigala (which loosely translated means “The Prawn”) has the kind of rasping voice that properly suggests a life of hard living and earnestness, the perfect instrument for this music. To the untrained ear, it may seem like he is struggling to hold a note, but that wailing and fluttering is the evolved style of the suffering gipsy, and, at times, his voice reminded me of the plaintive yowling of nomadic Native American tribes or the spiritual yearnings of Jewish Sephardic music—but jazzier. The red-hot, gracious singer was backed by guitarist Dan BenLior, bassist Yelsy Heredia, percussionist Isidro Suárez José, and—terrific enough to have his own set—pianist Jaime “Jumitus” Calabuch, who offered some of the most exciting solo work of the night.

photos from Buena Vista’s European Tour
other photos courtesy of LA Phil

Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club
The Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N Highland Ave.
played August 19, 2015
for future events, call 323.850.2000 or visit www.hollywoodbowl.com
for tours and dates, visit www.buenavistasocialclub.com

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