Speaking the Universal Language

Buena Vista Social Club's Omara Portuondo and Barbarito Torres delight at Cerritos Center

By Glen Creason
Published on LatinoLA: October 5, 2000

Speaking the Universal Language

Sure, the governments of the United States and Cuba have been sore at each other since 1959 and Fidel has blamed us for evils beyond even our might since he seized power way back when. For years America and Cuba have ignored each other like hurt family members at a reunion, talking bad about each other to everyone else and shunning each others company.
In 1977 things thawed a little but still the cousins eye one another warily across the Caribbean sea and relations are severely strained. While it may be a shame we can's talk person to person with our neighbors without the interference of the suits in Washington, music may be the closest thing to an international language of understanding between our two countries and the good people in both lands.
Most excellent ambassadors in the persons of Omara Portuando and Barbarito Torres along with another dozen and a half fine musicians from Dr. Castro's Cuba extended their hands and hearts to the people of Cerritos last weekend bringing love, joy and understanding into the character of the great Cuban musical tradition. In yet another memorable evening these Cubans showed we Americans the best of their talent and spirit in a program full of joyful song spiced by a little dance.
The incredible Omara Portuando headlined this feast of the stars of the Buena Vista Social Club and at sixty-nine years young she demonstrated powers that talented women half her age would envy. She more than possessed the stage, she owned the hall as she appeared in an elegant black ensemble and glided through a full evening of beautiful ballads, bittersweet boleros and danzon cha that got the Cerritos faithful up off their chairs. Ballads like the silky La Dije A Una Rosa, and a heart throbbing bolero Veinte A?os showed the great singer at her best: pouring emotion into lyrics that made the songs come to life, even for those of us who struggled to understand the Cuban Spanish.
One needs no dictionary when hearing Omara because she sings directly from and to the heart. They say some of the great vocalists have a "cry" in their voices, Omara has a swoon. Even in the lighter material like Vereda Tropical or He Verdido Contigo she showcased a voice that stands with the best even in its seventh decade as she effortlessly oozed up and down and around the melodies with a depth and control that was awe inspiring.
It is not that she is alone out there, with thirteen excellent musicians lead by Jesus "Aguaje" Ramos on trombone and dance steps plus the charismatic Papi Oveido, master of a most unusual guitar. Ramos again provided some levity in Trombon with an improvised Somewhere Over the Rainbow and Oveido played his instrument behind his back without missing a note in a busy solo.
Of course the show is a master class of jazz singing as Omara romped through a wonderful Siboney, and a superheated Quizas, Quizas that had the entire assemblage on their feet. Like a great baseball team without names on the backs of their uniforms the play was superb but recognition not always easy. There was no effort to identify tunes to the non-afficianado and Spanish impaired but the joy, the intensity and affection for the music was a lot more important than putting names on the experience.
As in the ideal Cuba there was little recognition of the individual but more a movement of music for the common good in the opening set by Barbarito Torres and his magical laud or lute. Se?or Torres' smaller but no less enthusiastic band played the musica guajira or a style of country blues from his native Matanzas in tight and delicious harmonies.
There was some frustration that this egalitarian approach sometimes relegated the light of Torres?magnificent lute behind the bushel of other instruments especially an overpowering but well played trumpet. Sarandonga, Yo Na Se, Alla Vey, Pensando En Ti, and El Tren were the brightest spots in a luminescent evening of rich music but Cuarto del Tula from the Buena Vista film score got the audience up and moving in a visceral approval to a great night of hands across the small sea.

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