Why does the tiny island nation of Cuba rank as a kind of musical superpower, turning out colossal virtuosos who tend to dwarf their counterparts around the planet?
Some of the answers were on stage Sunday night at Symphony Center, where multiple generations of Cuban artists performed under the banner of the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club, with guest pianist Roberto Fonseca.
Ever since the "Buena Vista Social Club" album and film of the late 1990s, plus subsequent spin-off recordings and tours, the global audience has come to admire a musical culture that has been transforming jazz since at least the 1940s (though Cuban influence on the music reaches back before that). The phenomenal success of the "Buena Vista" project still resonates widely, as Sunday's sold-out show suggested, with even Symphony Center's Terrace seating packed.
No doubt many in the audience realized that "Buena Vista" stars such as singer-guitarist Compay Segundo, pianist Ruben Gonzalez, singer Ibrahim Ferrer and bassist Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez have passed away. These losses are irreplaceable. But the spirit of the music, and the traditions that define it, lives in the work of the "Buena Vista" veterans still performing and a younger generation that carries forth their work.
You could hear as much on Sunday evening, as "Buena Vista" veterans such as vocalist Omara Portuondo and singer-guitarist Eliades Ochoa serenaded a crowd that spent much of the evening on its feet – at Portuondo's urging. True, the evening's unacceptable over-amplification diminished the impact of this music by robbing listeners of the chance to fully savor the inherently acoustic nature of this music. Yet the urgency of the performances almost made up for it.
Ochoa and an ensemble of vocalists and instrumentalists achieved the evening's high point in "Chan Chan," the haunting song that practically became the anthem of the "Buena Vista Social Club" and the most famous tune to emerge from the pen of Compay Segundo (whose birth name was Maximo Francisco Repilado Munoz). To hear Ochoa's vocal incantations supported by several other voices, Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal's clarion trumpet crying out in the background, was to realize anew that this music is inextinguishable.
Octogenarian Portuondo brought an unmistakably regal presence to the stage, even if her voice sounded limited and her phrases clipped at first. But she seemed to gain energy from the adulation showered upon her from the crowd, Portuondo showing vocal intensity in "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas." And who could resist her romantic dance with tres player Papi Oviedo, the two conjuring the nearly lost world of pre-Castro Cuba in a few choreographic gestures.
Emerging pianist Fonseca opened the evening, and the dexterity and brilliance of his playing placed him in a long line of Cuban hyper-virtuoso of the keys, such as Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Fonseca enriched this music with his imploring vocal chants, beautifully textured solos from Malian kora master Yacouba Sissoko and intricately layered rhythms of Fonseca's band.
But here, too, over-amplification stripped this music of some of its character and dulled the effect of Fonseca's art.