After bouts of cancellations and rebookings dating back to last year, things seem to be looking up for Latin music fans waiting to hear touring bands out of Cuba. That patience was rewarded last month with two concerts from Havana bands in one weekend: Latin jazz quintet Habana Sax played Page Auditorium on April 25 as part of Duke's Institute of the Arts series, and the Afro-Cuban All Stars hit Greensboro's Empire Room on April 28 as part of the Piedmont Jazz Festival. The Afro-Cuban All Stars, the 18-member ensemble led by Buena Vista Social Club mastermind Juan de Marcos, featured an evening of surprises with vocalists representing three generations of Cuban music. Meanwhile, Habana Sax wowed the Durham audience with their dizzying technique and unique sound combining four-part saxophone harmonies with Afro-Cuban rhythms.
Witnessing Habana Sax was like hearing a train before one sees it coming--exhilarating, if a little disorienting at first. Though the group's showmanship was a little gimmicky at times, with lots of strutting, visual jokes and musical puns, the sense of fun was infectious. The four sax players were versatile multi-instrumentalists, using hand percussion, voice and air monitor-computer synthesizer to expand their capabilities. Drummer Francois Zayas, the youngest member at 28, juggled congas, timbales, drum set, bongos, maracas and other hand percussion, with amazing speed and agility. Baritone sax player Evaristo Denis led an a capella number in Arar, an African language handed down "boca a boca" through generations of Cubans. The band sank their teeth into a rumbified version of Gershwin's "Summertime," and ended the first set fittingly enough with a 1950s-style merengue, the swaying Dominican ballroom dance typified by rolling saxophone arpeggios.
Listening to the basslines in the first set, one felt that Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo (the African-American and Afro-Cuban primogenitors of Latin Jazz, respectively) were never far away, and sure enough, Habana Sax did "Night in Tunisia" after the intermission. Cuban hip-hop is a growing phenomenon, and Eduardo Fernandez rapped a few fusion tunes for which the band donned straw hats, calling it "Farmer Rap" (a heavy-handed joke on the guajiro farmers of Oriente province). Their gangsta version of the tourist favorite "Chan Chan" was entertaining, but for real Cubanophiles, this was a bit of a tease--like being tickled by a virtuoso lover when one would rather be seduced.
If you prefer your son passionate, intense and uninterrupted, the Afro-Cuban All Stars in Greensboro Sunday night, April 28, was the place to be. Sound check ran up until show time due to a flight delay, while fans lined up around the block outside the theater. Once inside, carousers had to wait in another long line for drink tickets, but once the chaos had cleared, Juan de Marcos took the stage in his usual salt-and-pepper dreadlocks and cap. While he is arguably the figure inside Cuba most responsible for the recent son renaissance, de Marcos led his band into an opening riff from Mario Bauza's "Tanga" Suite--another allusion to the long love affair between Cuba and North America known as Latin jazz.
The All Stars in their current form are a superb combination of youth and experience, drawn from Cuba's prodigious talent pool, which seems almost incestuous at times. Thus Luis Alemany (uncle to Jesus, and a member of his nephew's big band, Cubanismo) played trumpet alongside 32-year-old jazz sensation Julio "Julito" Pedrn. Included in the six-man brass lineup were a former bandmate of '50s crooner Beny More (Antonio Leal, trombone), and at least two veterans of jazz fusion band Irakere (trumpeter Padron and saxophonist Raul Gutierrez). Dav'd çlfaro created masterful settings on piano-keyboard, and conguero Adel Gonzalez, looking baby-faced in a business suit, won over fans with an early solo.
Among the soneros, Luis Frank Arias gave solid, if not flashy performances on traditional tunes like "El Vaiven de mi Carreta." The 79-year-old Ignacio Carillo "Masacote," in a jaunty green and tan loden jacket, improvised spicy dance moves to his son and cha cha ch numbers. Felix Valdes, who records with top acts like Orlando "Maraca" Valle, seemed perfectly content to be singing coro, but it would have been great to hear to hear this talented young sonero cut loose as a soloist.
At five minutes to 10, De Marcos looked down at his watch and declared, "it's time to dance." For anyone still holding out in their seats, the ultimate kryptonite soon appeared in the form of Pedro "Pedrito" Calvo, former lead singer of Los Van Van, in his trademark white, wide-brimmed hat. Quickly getting into some sexually charged dancing with audience members both onstage and off, Pedrito's flamboyant, charismatic masculinity is part of a Habana tradition known as guaper'a--from guarapo, an unrefined syrup derived in the cane-making process. As a measure of Pedrito's impact on an audience, Cubans say that years from now, history books will list Fidel Castro as "Cuba's leader in the time of Los Van Van"--and though Pedrito is now doing his own thing, he is still synonymous with the dance band's 30-year success.
Among the evenings instrumental highlights were De Marcos' sultry guitar playing, as he plucked his plugged-in tres with hints of psychedelic reverb. The long and lean guiro player Luis Lang played gorgeous charanga-style violin in the second half, with a Cuban flag draped over his shoulders that a fan had passed up to him. Padrn's intense trumpet solo stole the show on an original bolero, providing introspection as a counterpoint to the band's more visceral dance mission.
All in all, it was a weekend that stoked the appetites of Latin music aficionados.
Previewing Triangle concerts in the next month, Colombia's salsa superstars Grupo Niche are slated to play the Sheraton Imperial June 14, through the promotion of local restaurant Patio Loco. In the meantime, local Latineros
El Grupo Camaleon are set to play Exploris in Raleigh on May 18 and
Recuerdos De Puerto, an acoustic Latin group will be playing May 23 at James Pharmacy Restaurant (formerly Lu-EG's) in Hillsborough.
And a final note: special congratulations to Montas Lounge on celebrating their third anniversary May 2! Members enjoyed exhibition dancing by local pros and visiting instructors, and danced to live music by Richmond salseros Bio Ritmo, who self-release their long-awaited fourth album this month.
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