Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club with Omara Portuondo

Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, Monday 28 March

Buena Vista Social Club is a cultural phenomenon, a living fairytale - how many long-forgotten musicians are rediscovered and showered with plaudits when they can still benefit from it? - and a treasure trove of Cuban music. Sadly, mortality has caught up with many of the greats who appeared under the Buena Vista banner on one immortal night (July 31) at the same venue in 2000. Tonight’s proceedings evoked bitter-sweet memories of such much-loved performers as singer Ibrahim Ferrer, piano maestro Rubén González and bassist Cachaíto López. The incomparable Omara Portuondo is happily still with us. 

Acoustics were unforgiving for the opening tune, but the capacity audience were willing an evening full of nostalgia and ebullience, and the musicians, led by musical director and trombonist Jesús ‘Aguaje’ Ramos, were keen to deliver. Singer Carlos Calunga tried valiantly to evoke the spirit of Ibrahim Ferrer on De Camino A La Vereda, but the old-timers took the honours, particularly Papi Oviedo, with a tres guitar characterised by primitive emotion and rhythmic sureness, and Manuel ‘Guajiro’ Mirabal, whose trumpet is simultaneously eloquent and sharp-cutting. But they weren’t having it all their own way: the boyish-featured Rolando Luna, in a line of prodigious Cuban piano players from Pérez Prado to Roberto Fonseca, tenderly summoned an age before he was born by playing As Time Goes By in danzón-style. 

And then came the woman introduced by Ramos as “la más bonita de Cuba”. Omara Portuondo is a true diva, absorbing all the adulation of an ecstatic audience and projecting it back in waves of pure love. She is unsurpassable with a bolero, expressing the full meaning and feeling of a sad love song (like her signature song, Veinte Años). Her way is exquisite anguish, rather than the defiant rage of Chavela Vargas or the self-destructive hubris of Billie Holiday (her immediate peers). Yet there is something twinkling about her timelessly beautiful, animated features. She is the earthiest of divas, hitching her pink skirt gracefully to her calves in acknowledgement of the applause. “Omara la más bonita y la más sexy”, yelled an excited Spanish neighbour. 

And even that old show-stopper, Chan Chan, shaped as a duo (or duet) for Oviedo and Mirabal, can’t keep anti-climax at bay when Omara left the stage. An extended Candela is reshaped into a full-fledged descarga (jam), to demonstrate the typically Cuban mix of technical sophistication and physical exuberance, but it takes the return of Omara to restore real emotional depth with a sensitive reading of Dos Gardenias. Spectators are left with a last sight of Omara vigorously waving her arm and repeatedly calling “Ayé”. This goes beyond nostalgia: at eighty, Omara is simply getting better.

Pictures by Eva Navarro 


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