The Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club concert at the Adrienne Arsht Center on Thursday night was as much an exercise in dislocated nostalgia as a musical event. In 1997 the original Buena Vista Social Club recording seduced the world with its soulful rendition of traditional Cuban music and its charmingly plucky musicians. Since then the Buena Vista brand has become — along with cigars, antique American cars and fiery mambo revues — a cliché emblem of Cuba for outsiders. On the island, it’s music for tourists.
The band, which performed Thursday at a sold-out Knight Concert Hall, is the latest in a long line of groups and soloists that stem from the original Buena Vista ensemble. This final “Adios” tour, which stopped at the White House earlier this month, includes only a few of the musicians who first enchanted millions: singer Omara Portuondo; tres player and sonero Eliades Ochoa; laud player Barbarito Torres, and trumpeter Guajiro Mirabal. The rest are a mix of musicians led by trombonist Jesus “Aguaje” Ramos.
I was lucky enough to have attended the Buena Vista Social Club’s landmark 1998 concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall. To anyone who heard the original, two crucial elements were glaringly absent from the ensemble that played Thursday. One was the musical direction, arrangements and leadership of Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, the unsung architect of BVSC, who merged disparate individuals into a tightly interlocked ensemble out of which each person’s gifts and each solo shone like jewels in a gorgeous setting, each part adding to the whole. The other was the sense of natural soul, that you were hearing people pour themselves out in music that came more easily than speaking.
If the original was gold, the latest version is brass — flashy and reflecting what people want to see. The 11 musicians in addition to the four original members were accomplished; and pianist Rolando Luna, bassist Pedro Pablo, and soaring trumpeter Luis Allemany were the kind of virtuoso young guns that Cuba’s music schools produce on a regular basis. But there were moments when the performers seemed downright disengaged. The sense of a driving, locked-in groove, one of the characteristic elements that makes Cuban music so exciting, was absent, as was the feeling of unity and excitement necessary to any good band.
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Certainly there were energetic numbers, particularly when Ochoa was leading songs such as El Carretero and La Luna — his still-powerful voice and driving, rippling tres playing uniting the band. But often the center of attention were the videos of deceased original members: pianist Ruben Gonzalez for Como Siento Yo, bassist Cachaito Lopez for a tumbao; singers Ibrahim Ferrer for Bruca Manigua and Compay Segundo for Chan Chan (amped up in a way very different from the lilting original), and Pio Leyva for El Cuarto de Tula. The audience erupted in screams and applause for each one.
The only moments that aroused more enthusiasm were the ones when Ochoa and Portuondo took the stage. The audience screamed for the nearly 85-year-old Portuondo, in glittery orange turban and caftan, who ate up the attention, waving her arms to encourage the crowd to sing along on raucous versions of the Trio Matamoros classic Lagrimas Negras and the delicately rhythmic Quizás, quizás, quizás. But Portuondo’s rich, plaintive, exquisitely modulated voice, once capable of inducing tears on songs like Veinte años, has deteriorated considerably. And there was something discomforting about the way that Portuondo, a legendary diva and artist who looked extremely uncertain on her legs, stiffly wiggled and mugged for the shrieking crowd.
This enthusiasm for a cliché version of Cuban music seems odd in a city filled with generations of Cuban exiles, many of whom are presumably familiar with the real thing. When the Buena Vista Social Club was at the height of its popularity, exile politics kept it from playing Miami. Just five years ago, controversy and lack of ticket sales caused the cancellation of a Miami concert by Portuondo. Now she and the remnants of Buena Vista seem to represent not the politics of the Cuban government but beloved and authentic Cuban culture. The audience at the Arsht was filled with young people, 20- to 40-somethings cheering vociferously for music that holds little appeal for their peers on the island.
But there are ample opportunities in Miami for anyone who wants to hear more contemporary Cuban artists. That same Thursday night that Buena Vista played, the great Cuban jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, also once a controversial figure, performed at Festival Miami at the University of Miami. The Rhythm Foundation will present another Cuban piano great, Chucho Valdes, on Nov. 14. In December, the Vedado Social Club, which has been presenting young Cuban musicians for several years, will hold a mini-festival of new artists. Fundarte and Miami Light Project have presented vibrant Cuban jazz, hip-hop and fusion artists for years and will do so again at their annual Global Cuba Fest next April.