Havana morbid time

Martin Longley feels ambivalent about the Buena Vista Social Club’s Symphony Hall show.

Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club
Symphony Hall

Rarely does a gig prompt such an ambivalent response as this ‘adios’ show by the very veteran Buena Vista posse. Musical vibrations were typically very positive within their extensive set-list of Cuban songs, covering all moods, from uptempo near-salsa grooving to sparse, melancholy ballads. On the other hand, the audience was recurringly reminded of the vast band death-toll that has understandably counted up over the last decade or so, entirely expected as most of the club members were already veteran artists on the Cuban scene when the first Buena Vista sessions were released (almost two decades ago, believe it or not).

The nearly two hour set featured a series of video montage still-shots of the departed, floating by as a relevant member of the current band stepped forward to highlight the necessary instrument or vocal refrain. The ultimate result was a gloriously uplifting sadness, and a definite awareness of passing years and former glories.

It was a seated concert, with only a few isolated stretches of standing in the audience, towards the night’s end. Even so, though the Buena Vista songbook can prompt dancing, most of the material calls for a sophisticated glide, so we didn’t feel too hemmed in by the circumstances. There is also a good deal of musical intricacy, suited to a seated contemplation, particularly with the more tranquil numbers.

So, the lost members include singer Ibrahim Ferrer, pianist Rubén González, bassist Cachaito, guitarist Manuel Galbán and Compay Segundo (vocals/tres). The present old hands include trumpeter Guajiro Mirabal, trombonist Jesus ‘Aguaje’ Ramos and Barbarito Torres, who plays the laúd, which is a Spanish-descended chordophone, or cittern, to you and me.

Also present (and what a presence!) is singer Omara Portuondo, elderly, yes, but belying her age (84) with both vocal power and general hyperactive sassiness. The rest of the sprawling ensemble comprised piano, tres, bass, another two trumpeters, a pair of singers and three percussionists.

The show was very well-paced, strolling through the back catalogue, including expected, nay, demanded greats such as Chan Chan, Candela, Quizás, Quizás, Quizás and Dos Gardenias. Shorn of any audience-poking techniques, the show just concentrated on the music, and once Portuondo entered, around halfway through, all existence revolved around the singer’s own star quality.

Her voice remains a powerful instrument, soaring up into the glistening acoustic space of Symphony Hall, with lines delivered in a confidently casual, almost off-hand way, the best singers always sounding like they’re making conversation, issuing the phrases for the first time. She just didn’t want to leave the stage when Chan Chan was struck up, but still came back for the encore. It took some steady building, but by the end, a rapturous response was entirely earned, the audience having being put on a steady heat for the show’s duration.