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Give Me That Old Time Cuban Music

The core of the Buena Vista Social Club
The core of the Buena Vista Social Club

If you were driving past CSUN's Valley Performing Arts Center on Wednesday night with your windows down, you might have felt the tropical breeze. It was unmistakable to the full house inside the center, a group absolutely enthralled by the music of the Buena Vista Social Club.

The 13-member band, featuring some of the best musicians to come out of Cuba, makes music that is always fresh and, at times, sweet, sultry, cool, hip and nostalgic. The group makes fans wherever it plays. It makes concertgoers move in their seats and clap to the beat.

But the Buena Vista Social Club doesn't make many albums.

Not that it needs to. The group's album, released almost exactly 16 years ago, is ranked 260 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

That self-titled album is not just a collection of splendid music, it also forms the backbone of the playlist during the current tour. Roughly half of Wednesday night's numbers were from that one time-honored album.

Of course, a few of the musicians who made that album are now playing in St. Peter's orchestra. That's inevitable considering the impetus for assembling the group in the first place was a desire to recreate the music of pre-Fidel Cuba.

Incredibly, the heart of this group consists of Omara Portuondo, Guajiro Mirabal, Barbarito Torres and Eliades Ochoa, all of whom inhaled this music years before the 1959 revolution. To judge from their playing, singing and, yes, dancing, there is some serious anti-aging ingredient in these Cuban tunes.

The VPAC crowd cheered each number but saved their loudest applause for Quizas, Quizas, Quizas (Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps) which, interestingly, was not on the Buena Vista Social Club album. It could have been, though. It was a hit in 1947 and became particularly popular in the U.S. after Nat King Cole covered it in 1958.

Instead of Cole's tender, soft version, the Buena Vista Social Club delivered a lively, forceful song, courtesy of the incredibly powerful pipes of Portuondo, who turns 83 next month.

Her strong and slightly sultry voice provided vocals for half the numbers, including most of the ones from the album (Chan Chan, El Cuarto De Tula, Dos Gardenias, Veinte Anos and Candela). All that, and she made it look easy, at one point baring her lower limbs as she cavorted onstage during the group's encores.

The group's other lead vocalist, 67-year-old Eliades Ochoa, a relative youngster, was in fine form as well. Shiny guitar in hand and sporting his cowboy hat, he pleased the audience with country lament El Carretero, as well as De Camino A La Vereda, Estoy Como Nunca and El Carbonero.

This iteration of the Buena Vista Social Club included several veteran musicians as well as younger performers who have talent beyond their years, guaranteeing that this unique blend of jazz and traditional African and Caribbean rhythms will be with us for years to come.

Strengthening that guarantee is the six-member band headed by Roberto Fonseca which opened the program. Fonseca, 38, wrote his first jazz composition at 14 and formed his first group at 15.

Fonseca can attack the piano with the dexterity and energy of a honky tonk artist or let his smooth sound give way to the other instruments in his group: Cuban percussion, bass, drums, electric guitar and something called a kora, a stringed instrument that looks a little like the neck of a guitar got stuck onto a giant gourd.

His is a more playful style, one that includes dueling drum sets and music that comes to a long pause, only to begin again with a nod from his head.

Fonseca, well-received by the crowd, dedicated the last number of his band's 45-minute set to "all the women here, especially my mom." She has every reason to be proud.




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