News Column

Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club brings Cuban spirit to Atlanta

October 2, 2013


Oct. 02--The musical phenomenon known as the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club, which returns to the Rialto Center for the Arts on Saturday for a rare U.S. performance, was a dream, a castle made out of air that somehow became a good place to live.

A group of 20 Cuban citizens, many in their 70s and 80s, all musicians, some of whom had never played together before, others of whom had quit playing years earlier, assembled in a studio in Havana in 1996 to record a kind of music that had been out of style since before the revolution.

The unique ensemble, the songs they chose and the "live" recording process combined to create an irresistible album of traditional Cuban "son," "cha cha cha," "danzon" and "montuno." It far exceeded the hopes of British producer Nick Gold and American roots musician Ry Cooder, who expected to come up with a niche album of world music for the Starbucks crowd. Instead they found themselves with a blockbuster that would eventually sell 8 million copies.

One critic called the album the world music equivalent of Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon."

The success came late in the game for some members of the group. Pianist Ruben Gonzalez, who didn't own a piano, and had been shining shoes and selling lottery tickets for extra cash when the group convened, was already suffering from Alzheimer's when the record came out. He died in 2003 at age 84.

Singer Ibrahim Ferrer died two years later, at age 78.

He was a "companero," vocalist Omara Portuondo said of Ferrer, whose voice entwined with hers to create distinctive harmonies. "He was a great friend, always happy, very caring. I miss him a lot."

Portuondo, 82, is one of five members of the original ensemble still performing with the group. While Portuondo has an active solo career in Europe, her Buena Vista connection has introduced her to a new American audience, and she cherishes the time spent with Buena Vista musicians.

The 15-member ensemble is bolstered with the next generation of Cuban musicians, she said, a conservatory-trained crew that knows Chopin as well as Cachao. They have excellent technique. But the gauzy harmony that existed between Portuondo and the late Ferrer can't be taught in the conservatory. "You can't learn some of these things," she said.

The elegant Portuondo spoke from an Indianapolis hotel room, speaking in Spanish, the occasional English phrase and even a few bits of that universal language, song.

"Don't know why, there's no sun up in the sky," she sang, as she mentioned Lena "Stormy Weather" Horne among the notable American artists she's met in her long career.

"I know Louis Armstrong," she said in English. "We know those people because they are musicians."

The 800-seat Rialto Center for the Arts is one of the smallest venues that the group will play during this tour, and was one of the first places the group visited on its 1999 tour.

"When I knew they would be back in the U.S., I was all over it," said Rialto's director Leslie Gordon.

Tours through the United States are problematic for the group. The U.S. continues its trade embargo with Cuba, which means the musicians are forbidden from collecting performance fees in this country. All are Cuban citizens, and their travel in this country is under strict controls. Earlier concerts in Miami drew protests from anti-Castro Cuban expatriates. (For his part in the original enterprise, Cooder was reportedly fined $25,000 by the U.S. government.)

But Portuondo said "musica no tiene fronteras." ("Music has no borders.") "With music you can do anything -- it makes you laugh, it makes you cry. It is the soul of the people."

If the music of 1950s Cuba seems timeless, so does Portuondo, who is relaxed and talkative in a phone call that stretches from the promised 15 minutes to a leisurely 45.

Asked her age, she replies, with some impatience, that such information is the "punto claro," the "preocupacion," of the men she meets.

But she says, "Yo siento muy joven" ("I feel very young"). She credits music as the fountain of youth. "Music makes you feel younger and more beautiful."


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