Cuban music from the vintage era of the 1950s will again be performed by its masters in San Antonio.
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Buena Vista Social Club began with the smash 1997 album of the same name, after musician Ry Cooder recruited a group of aging, forgotten musicians for a 1997 recording session in Havana. Win Wenders captured the process of reuniting the original performers from Buena Vista Social Club in an award-winning documentary in 1999. The album won a Grammy Award, the group became famous worldwide, and the musicians began their renewed careers as ambassadors of Cuba’s traditional music.
After 16 years of touring, many of the aging performers have suffered ill health or have died. The surviving members of the group completed their final three-year tour in 2015. But jazz-loving bolero singer Portuondo, who has been singing for 65 years and was the centerpiece of the evolving band over the years, is staying on the road. The 85-year-old soulful singer will play six shows in 2016 with fellow original Buena Vista member Ochoa, who, by comparison, is still spry at 70 years of age.
A master of the tres guitar, Ochoa started performing when he was only 11. His country manner and hoarse vocals lead many to describe him as the “Cuban Johnny Cash.” At the Tobin performance this month, Ochoa will sing and play guitar with members of his band as they perform traditional music from Santiago de Cuba.
The Rivard Report interviewed the two Cuban performers in Spanish via email, as both are finishing up performances in other locations.
RR: I’ve attended Buena Vista Social Club concerts over the years and have always noticed how the audience responds enthusiastically, despite some not understanding the lyrics. With so many fans all over the world, what do you think drives the popularity of Cuban music?
Omara Portuondo: Well as you can imagine for me it was an honor to be part of the Buena Vista Social Club. The songs that are sung are in Castilian, but have influences from French chanson or African sounds. Perhaps that makes it more popular. What impresses me over the years is to see entire families enjoying our concerts, that is, generations of viewers who have joined the Cuban party.
Eliades Ochoa: The Buena Vista was commissioned to bring Cuban music around the world. Through this project, the quality of Cuban music, the rhythm of its flavor, and also the album included some artists who already had a history of Cuban music. This is very important. That helped the Buena Vista become what it is.
RR: You are both longtime performers. How has Cuban music changed for you over the many decades? Is there still keen interest in classic Cuban music?
OP: Cuban music is the soul of the people. We have a strong musical tradition, music that runs through our veins. (It’s the) source of creation and many influences, I think that’s why our music is so well received in the world. I think there is much interest in the classics. As you know, the classics never die and our musical culture is more alive than ever with its roots and sounds of yesteryear and today.
EO: Everything evolves in life. Cuban son, the traditional music has remained central, but there have been changes, influences, (and) versions that the world knows. It remains (or is maintained) as strong as ever in the Cuban tradition.
RR: The new documentary Adios will focus on the lives of the Cuban band’s five original members since the 1999 film, as well as honor band mates who have since died. I understand the movie will premiere sometime in 2016. Can you share any news about it?
OP: Well there is a team of good people who have accompanied us during the tour that began in 2014. I am very curious to see the images, but so far we do not know more about the project. I’m sure it will be a beautiful movie on the history of the group.
EO: I think this film Adios will reflect how it was a goodbye the world did not want (to experience), a closure that has been necessary as the movie makes its way around the world. The movie will be tremendous as it reveals many things not yet known about the group.
RR: What would you like to say to those attending your show in San Antonio to understand about you, about your music, and about life in Cuba today?
OP: Well, I am very happy to return to the United States. This time it will be with my friend Eliades Ochoa, so I’m happy. We’ve toured a lot together with the Buena Vista, but it is the first time we perform as just the two of us together so I’m looking forward to it. I hope to offer a concert from the heart to all who join us; fondly playing great Cuban classics.
EO: (I would like to) see many people, see the (concert hall) room full. I’m not the one who makes the best music, but I do it with love and respect, for everyone to enjoy. It is a reward for me that the public enjoys our music so.
Top image: Eliades Ochoa and Omara Portuondo will perform at the Tobin Center Aug. 20 at 8 p.m. Photo courtesy of Buena Vista Social Club.