Buena Vista Social Club / Omara Portuondo
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Buena Vista Social Club
At Carnegie Hall
World Circuit (www.worldcircuit.co.uk)

Omara Portuondo
Gracias
World Village (www.worldvillagemusic.com)

It is difficult to conceive that ten years have passed since the Buena Vista Social Club (BVSC) turned world music on its head-not to mention that the band, largely conceived as a studio project, released only one recording until now, and toured only briefly. Many know the Wim Wenders documentary corresponding to this new live release, and like all world wonders, BVSC in its various manifestations lives on at least as much in memory and emotion as in any of the material artifacts it generated. The fortunate few who saw the band perform live (twice in Amsterdam, just once in New York) are unlikely to forget these rarest of performances, whose sonic traces, reproduced on this two-CD live concert set, sound better than ever. Proust's madeleine-beyond category, as Duke Ellington would say. The rest of us have At Carnegie Hall and Wenders to fire the imagination, at least.

Ry Cooder puts it most pointedly: "Listening to the [concert] tapes for the first time in ten years, I'm struck by what an amazing musical event it was. You'll never hear it again, people of this calibre working together. They were dramatic personalities and they're nearly all gone now." As BVSC leader Juan de Marcos González observes, "It was never going to happen. Except that it did." Indeed, the stuff of genius, inspiration, and legend is far rarer than a world of label copy and journalist screed would have us believe. But avoiding superlatives here is a losing cause, not least if you've seen any of its august talents perform live. And the concert recording captures the exhilaration this cadre of mostly elderly Cuban traditional musicians generated one rare evening in New York. It doesn't hurt to know the background story, but here the music sings for itself.

One is tempted to pinpoint some of the many solo turns, especially given how now-departed masters like Compay Segundo, Rubén González, and Ibrahim Ferrer surged out of long and obscure retirement, adding fierce codas to careers that were illustrious before much of the world off island could identify a Cuban son or bolero, let alone the artists' names.

A few reminiscences by the artists themselves may suffice. Says Juan de Marcos González, "Compay was a law unto himself. I had to tell him he was out of tune, and he was very angry with me. He didn't speak to me for hours. Then he said, 'You're right. I must be getting old'. I knew him when I was a child, and he was like my uncle, so he forgave me."

Trombonist and Rubén González bandleader Jesús "Aguaje" Ramos recalls, "When I think of Rubén, I can still hear him play. At the [concert] rehearsal, Rubén didn't remember anything. But he said 'Don't worry. I'll go back to the hotel and have a shower, and when we do the show I'll remember everything.' And that's what happened. That night he remembered it all, and he played magnificently. The greatest applause I have ever heard in my lifetime was for Rubén at the Carnegie Hall. I've never seen anything like that.''

As Omara Portuondo remembers Ferrer, "Ibrahim asked me to sing Silencio with him, and for me that was the highlight. It made me feel so happy to see him singing, and to see how he was moved. We had [sung] together many times in the past, and to find ourselves together again was a big thing. It was impossible to keep back the tears, and when Ibrahim got out his handkerchief, at that moment we looked at each other, and I can't describe what we felt. That was a magical moment. Everyone knows it. It was pure poetry, something spontaneous and natural. Unforgettable!"

One could go on in this vein, but a close listening should do the trick-not to be missed.

Speaking of which, still going strong at 78, Portuondo is exemplary of BVSC compatriots who have gone before her. Her recent collaboration with Maria Bethânia was sublime, and she just keeps going. Gracias can certainly be read in one way as heartfelt thanks for the late career boost that BVSC represented, but like other BVSC veterans including Eliades Ochoa and Cachaito López, she only keeps improving. Produced by Alę Siqueira and Swami Jr. (who doubles throughout on Brazilian seven-string guitar), Gracias reflects in part Portuondo's recent time in Brazil, perhaps most manifestly in her duet with guest Chico Buarque on O Que Será. The greatly underrated young Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca, who has toured with the singer in recent years (and who headed Ibrahim Ferrer's band in the singer's final years), brings a beautiful lyricism to the project-not to overlook brilliant contributions by arranger-bassist Avishai Cohen, Pablo Milanés, Chucho Valdés, Cachaito, Jorge Drexler, Trilok Gurtu, and Richard Bona, all framing Portuondo's remarkable instrument and classic repertoire. - Michael Stone

(This review orignally appeared in fRoots Magazine)

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