With its red carpet and chandeliers, Raleigh Memorial Hall is not the first place you think of to go hear Afro-Cuban music. Despite that, and what many considered high ticket prices ($45 a pop), the hall had nearly filled up by 8 p.m. last Wednesday, when Orquesta Ibrahim Ferrer with special guest Rubén González--part of that loose consortium of artists and producers made famous (and infamous) by Wim Wenders' film Buena Vista Social Club--kicked off their latest U.S. tour.
As ushers continued to guide people to their seats with flashlights, a handful of musicians in suits and ties came onstage and dashed off a short, introductory riff: Dizzy Gillespie's "Manteca." Rubén González was carefully led on stage, bringing the crowd to its feet for the first of the night's many standing ovations. The diminutive 84-year-old held his arms out wide, gathering in the crowd's appreciation, before taking his seat at the piano, where he dove into "Mandinga," from his solo release Introducing ... Rubén González. He followed it with "El Bodeguero," a cha-cha-chá from his more recent disc, Chanchullo.
But by the time González got to the album's title track, it was impossible not to notice that there was something wrong: His fingers were fine, but his timing began to drift. Though few in the audience seemed to care, González lagged noticeably at several points, with trombonist Jesus "Aguaje" Ramos going over to González and gently laying a hand on his shoulders, shepherding him forward with the music.
Despite tempo problems, González ended each piece with a flourish, and obviously still relishes performing for an audience. After "Chanchullo," González was led off stage to another standing ovation. Without any fanfare, a young Afro-Cuban in a black slouch hat took over his seat at the piano while the ensemble metamorphosed into a Big Band, filling out an eight-piece second line of trumpets, trombone and sax on the bandstand, in addition to the piano, bass, trombone, flute, bongos, congas, timbales, hand percussion and coro singers already on stage. Including the two headliners, 16 musicians rotated in and out of the ensemble throughout the evening.
The band jammed for a couple of tunes, highlighted by solos from legendary Cuban saxman Rolando Sanchez as well as a talented young bassist sitting in for Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez. Then Ibrahim Ferrer--wearing wire-rimmed glasses and his trademark cap in a deep plum, his double-breasted suit accented by two-toned shoes--scooted out from the wings to a standing ovation, leading off his set with "Bruca Manigua." This number, like the bulk of tunes that followed that evening, are featured on his Ry Cooder-produced solo album, Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer. Much to the delight of music purists, however, there wasn't a slide guitar or dumbek within earshot (though I did see a Cooder look-alike hawking Buena Vista CDs, T-shirts and baseball caps in the foyer).
Also noticeably absent from this incarnation of the Buena Vista Social Club were string players. Most of the other missing stars have either dropped off (some literally) from touring with the group, or are busy with other projects. The untimely death of 55-year-old violinist Pedro Depestre this April while touring with the group in Switzerland apparently launched a bout of depression for his friend Francisco Repilado, the 93-year-old singer and guitarist known as "Compay Segundo." Exhausted from a grueling schedule, Repilado canceled the rest of his European tour dates to recuperate in Cuba, where recent reports say he is rehearsing again and plans to resume touring later this year. Omara Portuondo, Eliades Ochoa and Barbarito Torres appear fit but have been busy pursuing solo careers. Versatile timbalero Amadito Valdes has popped up on several recent jazz and Latin collaborations, including Cachaito's very modern solo effort released in June, for which Ferrer also floats a golden guest vocal on the plugged-in descarga, "Wahira."
The concert pace alternated between Ferrer's two specialties: lusciously slow boleros and fast-paced son, heavy on improvisation. Ferrer dug into "Herido de Sombras," a romantic tune from his album, followed by an energetic version of "Marieta," stretched out to house-party length to accommodate virtuoso sax and flute work. Ferrer, always game for an improvisation, joined bandleader Ramos in a sidestep/vertical-hop/line dance, and brought the crowd to its feet.
The backline of horns, who had ducked out for "Marieta," returned for another bolero, "Nuestra Ultima Cita," in which Ferrer sings about a shower of kisses and a final date. Then came a jaw-dropping performance: The young piano player we'd heard earlier returned to solo on the uptempo "Cienfuegos Tiene Su Guaguancó," pounding the keys on some fantastic runs that would indicate that he's just as familiar with Rachmaninoff as Chucho Valdés. Twenty-six-year-old pianist Roberto ("Robertico") Fonseca studied at the state-sponsored conservatory and has since recorded with his own Latin jazz fusion group, Temperamente;. Before gigging with the likes of Changuito and Ferrer, Fonseca was playing burger joints in Havana. As disappointing as it was not to see González able to play a full concert, young artists such as Fonseca bode well for the survival of son.
Next, Ferrer melted into "Como Fué," possibly the most beautiful Cuban bolero associated with the legendary Beny Moré. Ferrer's phrasing was both original and sensuous, leaving everything to be imagined and nothing to be desired--easily the highpoint of the evening, on the bolero side. Touched by the Spanish lyrics ("How it happened/I don't know how to tell you/how it happened/I can't explain it/but I fell in love with you"), the audience rose to its feet again as Ferrer pulled out one his few English phrases, "Thank you very much." Live, as in Wenders' film, the intercultural love story between the cherubic Ferrer and his American and European audiences is very real.
Ferrer called out "Tula!" next, the tale of a poor girl whose room caught fire when she forgot to put out the candle--a classic example of Cuban sexual double entendre. Ferrer played bombero, ringing imaginary firebells with his hands in the air as he embroidered on the familiar coro. This kicked off a final set of songs from the original Buena Vista Social Club album. A handful of brave souls danced along the back walls of the mezzanine, but for the most part, the tushies that were shaking remained in their assigned seats, clearly a drawback to booking a Cuban band--even an octogenarian one--into a concert hall.
"De Camino a la Vereda" led into the first round of insincere goodbyes. Ferrer trotted off disingenuously while band members were introduced and the audience stroked with "Thank you, Raleigh! Thank you, USA!" A young woman in the front row handed a pair of red and white roses to Ferrer, who spryly bent down to shake hands with audience members. Then Rubén González returned for an encore duet of "Dos Gardenias," the tune's fragrant melancholia even more bittersweet given González' condition.
"The last one," Ferrer said, and this time he meant it, as he and the band set fire to "Candela." Suddenly, you could see that he was carrying his black bastón, the African religious staff left to him by his mother (seen in the final frames of the Buena Vista Social Club). Ferrer was alternately gesturing with it and carrying it tucked carefully into his belt. He'd probably had it there with him, beneath the double-breasted exterior, the whole time.