A very social club
The Buena Vista parade continues
The extraordinarily well-marketed Buena Vista Social Club juggernaut continues unabated, with its only female star Omara Portuondo back in town for a solo concert at the Rialto on Friday, Sept 15. Cynics should note that unlike the familiar situation of a successful one-off album launching solo careers for its main participants, whether they're ready or not, the folks involved here are not exactly new kids on the block. Buena Vista Social Club has merely relaunched the careers of some long-forgotten singers and musicians. Their style may be decidedly old-fashioned compared with some of the newer exciting sounds coming out of Cuba, but it has undoubtedly struck a chord with listeners worldwide (5 million sales for the original BVSC album, 20 percent of that in the U.S.). Perhaps the attraction lies in the fact that these troubadours come from an off-limits, rarely glimpsed country where time has in some senses stood still in recent decades.
Portuondo plays Atlanta with a full band including special guest Barbarito Torres on laoud (lute). Like the honey-throated Ibrahim Ferrer with whom she dueted on the first BVSC album and in the highly effective Wim Wenders film documentary of the phenomenon, Portuondo has been performing professionally for half a century, and now it's her turn to take the spotlight alone. She drove an already enthusiastic crowd to new heights last year at the Rialto as Ferrer's special guest, with her commanding stage presence, natural charm, communication abilities and powerhouse voice.
Buena Vista Social Club presents Omara Portuondo (World Circuit/ Nonesuch) is her first solo U.S. release and sees the singer reunited with several of the players who helped propel the original Ry Cooder-produced sessions into the world music charts, most notably octogenarian pianist Ruben Gonzalez and trumpeter Manuel Mirabal. Ferrer himself drops by to duet on the old chestnut "No me llores más," written by the 1940s legend Arsenio Rodríguez (whose band Gonzales left in 1944!). As on Ferrer's solo outing from last year, one more hit by the '60s group Los Zafiros is unearthed, again featuring that band's original electric guitarist Manuel Galban. Compay Segundo and Eliades Ochoa, the other two BVSC singers, are content to contribute some acoustic guitar.
Many different moods are sampled, from the gentle opening lament to habanera and bolero, to the unique jazz-influenced filin style she herself helped to popularize years ago. George & Ira Gershwin's "The Man I Love" is brought back to life (in translation) and followed, appropriately enough, by a song once trumpeted by Glenn Miller, "Siempre en Mi Corazon" by Ernesto Lecuona (who was in many ways a Cuban Gershwin).
Eliades Ochoa from Santiago de Cuba may look like a cowboy with his trademark hat and boots, but he is a pure Guajiro, and a master of the son, guracha and bolero styles. At 52, he's barely out of diapers compared to most of his BVSC colleagues. His new Tribute to the Cuarteto Patria (Higher Octave World) is the second album under his name in as many years and features many past and present members of the group it honors. The quartet was founded around 1940, and in 1978 Ochoa was invited by Francisco Pancho Cobas to come on board and lead it.
Ochoa describes this album as "a love letter to Cuban music, and a recognition of Pancho Cobas and the rest who kept the flame alive when there was no Buena Vista Social Club." He also puts percussion out front, arguing that, "without the African ingredient, the Cuban genre loses its verve." Guests include his sister, Maria, who just happens to have her own album out this month.
Asi Quiero Vivir ("like this I want to live," on the Blue Jackel label) is credited to Mariá Ochoa y Corazon de Son ("the heart of son"). Maria has been dubbed "Dama de la Musica Campesina," which is impressive if you believe the claims that campesina music is the true root of son, which is in turn the foundation of all Cuban music. Regardless, it's her voice — which while well-seasoned is much feistier than Portuondo's smooth instrument — and choice of material and accompanists that impresses here. We will refrain from identifying the "special surprise guest" present, but heck, even a cowboy like George W. can probably figure this one out.
Another fine singer from Santiago is countertenor Armando Garzón, whose latest Escándalo (Corason/Rounder) is backed with gentle tres and requinto guitars and timbales. The album pays homage to the romantic music of Latin America, from Puerto Rico to Mexico. And, not being Dan Quayle, he didn't have to learn Latin to pull this off.
This year's Cuban sampler, The Story of Cuba (Hemisphere), is a step forward from previous ones: In addition to killer music, in which over a dozen styles are represented and documented, extensive notes are provided regarding the rhythms employed on the various tracks. More information on the artists and track sources would have been welcome, but at least we have no excuses now for confusing a songo with a conga or a timba with a bolero.
Omara Portuondo performs at the Rialto Center, Fri., Sept 15, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $55-$70. For more information, call 404-651-4727. More World Beat information and archives can be viewed at John Falstaff's website, www.pd.org/~jcf.