The popularity of Cuban music, in particular from its golden era in the 1950s, is now a worldwide phenomenon, set off largely by Ry Cooder’s work with The Buena Vista Social Club and spread through international tours and the infectiousness of salsa dance. This latest tour – The Bar at Buena Vista – The Grandfathers of Cuban Music is a reprise of a tour that came to Australia in 2004, with some changes in personnel.
Toby Gough, the UK director who devised and also hosts the show, has done a remarkable job in bringing together a host of talent to showcase some legends of Cuban music. His passion for the music, his affection and respect for the musicians, and his telling of the story behind the music give the show a warmth and integrity that has the audience captivated. Everyone, on and off-stage, has a good time.
The setting is a smoky downtown club in Havana, recreating the 1950s when some of these musical legends were in their prime. The band is a tight outfit led by bassist Ricardo Martinez with fine vocals by Leonel Gamboa Almaguer. The dancers are a team of four women and three men, notably the dapper and eccentric Eric Turro, whose son style harks back to the forties and fifties. The dancing is athletic and sensual, but also rich in comedy. No one takes himself too seriously. This is showbiz, after all. All the men, including the dancers, are in suits and ties, and the costume colours shift from red and gold to blue and white.
As Master of Ceremonies, Gough kept up a narrative between the musical numbers, filling in the historical background with juicy anecdotes. The ‘grandfathers’, impeccably dressed, each made their entrances, and were introduced by Gough in a dialogue – often translated on the spot by Gough – that highlighted their sense of humour and cheeky personalities. Only one performer was missing. Actor Jesus Rodriguez as the barman Arturo Lucas was sick and his role was fluidly incorporated into Gough’s narrator.
The most popular performer of the night was 93-year old singer Reynaldo Creagh, who was greeted with a standing ovation. He wore an immaculate silver suit, with diamanté pointed shoes and sparkly socks, an elegant and contained man. At the first notes of the classic bolero Dos Gardenias, men and women in the audience gasped with recognition and rapture. It is a song that lives at the heart of Cuban music, with versions by many greats including Ibrahim Ferrer, and Creagh’s rendition had just the right intensity and intimacy to bring it to life yet again.
The grandfathers are true showmen and know how to trick and entertain their audience. Only 84-year-old pianist Maestro Rubalcaba, a member of the Afro-Cuban Allstars and dubbed ‘Hands of Gold’, was more reticent. ‘My life is my piano,’ he said as he sat down to play a flamboyant version of Quanta la Mera. He and his remarkable hands did indeed come to dramatic life at the piano.
Tres guitarist Maracaibo, at 83 years of age, is a multi-instrumentalist who worked through the 1950s in all the top Havana cabarets and composed songs for the bands of the era. His playing is still sensitive, dexterous and jazz infused and captures the meaning of the Cuban term descargo: the expression of the inner self through improvisation.
The fourth legend was the slightly younger singer Siomara Valdes, Cuban diva and fiery entertainer. She is a large woman with a wardrobe of colourful costumes who can sing up a storm and is in her element when interacting with the dancers or inveigling an audience member into joining the celebration onstage.
The crowd was encouraged to dance and sing in response. By the end of the night even the venerable Creagh was gyrating his pelvis suggestively. The whole company took out the night with the son number Chan Chan, the opening track of the famous Buena Vista Social Club album composed by Compay Segundo. It was just one of the many tributes to previous legends of Cuban music and touching moments of nostalgia. A celebration of past and present. We left with a glow that staved off the chill of the Melbourne night and lingered well into the next day.
ATA Allstar Artists proudly presents
The Bar at Buena Vista
The Grandfathers of Cuban Music
Written and Directed by Toby Gough
Venue: State Theatre, Melbourne
Dates: 3 - 4 Jun 2011
Matinee: Saturday 4 June, 2.00pm
Tickets: $79.90 - $98.90
Bookings: 1300 182 183 | www.theartscentre.com.au