Buena Vista Social Club hits Krannert Center

As the stage lights dawned on the performers in Tryon Festival Theatre, a roar of applause welcomed world-famous Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. An ensemble of Cuban musicians, Buena Vista Social Club recorded their first album in 1997 and immediately reached world fame with their folk songs, Latin jazz and emotionally compelling ballads. The album won the Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album Grammy in 1998. Although many of the original 20 members have passed away, today’s remaining five active and 10 new musicians are able to carry on the Cuban tradition that is Buena Vista Social Club.

As part of their constant world touring, Buena Vista Social Club stopped in Urbana on Saturday night. Band members had the audience immersed in Cuban jazz, shaking their hips, clapping their hands and crying loud cheers throughout the entire show. Every instrument beautifully weaved together in the ensemble, from a longing strum of the guitar to an improvised banging of the congas. In addition, the performance integrated double bass, bongos, trumpet, piano, timbales and laúd. Although the audience was seated at the show’s start, everyone was up and dancing by the end of the diverse rendition of Cuban culture.

Part of the establishment of this energy was veteran guitar player and vocalist, Eliades Ochoa. Rocking a black cowboy hat, Ochoa would move with the music, his guitar’s gold fret board flashing the audience with the reflected stage light during his emotionally intimate performance. One of the most distinctive aspects of Buena Vista Social Club’s sound is Ochoa’s iconic voice that resonated throughout the theater.

Also joining the ensemble was veteran vocalist, Omara Portuondo. At 82 years old, Portuondo has retained the impressive spirit of a younger performer and was one of the main reasons the crowd was so responsive. Whenever the audience would stop clapping, she would urge everyone to clap, and when the audience would sit down, she would signal everyone to get up and dance with her.

When performing their famous piece “Chan Chan,” veteran trumpet player, Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal, was able to invoke a nostalgic musical aura that took the audience, comprised of mostly seniors and elder members, to a younger time. The prolonged notes that reverberated from Mirabal’s trumpet were enough to even get older couples out of their chairs and force their bodies close to one another for a slow salsa.

This performance was a true portrayal of Cuban traditional expression. The band members embodied Latin passion within their movements, which were quickly reflected by their audience.

“I loved the energy,” said Richard Daniels, freshman in Fine and Applied Arts. “I looked back and saw the whole back row standing up and salsa dancing. It was great.”

It’s not every day that you see couples affectionately dancing with each other, but it seemed that the band brought out a romantic response in the crowd.

Women were standing up and gently resting their heads on their partners’ shoulders as the men swayed them from side to side. The music seemed to directly influence the emotions of all the audience, including me. It did not matter that there was a language barrier when trying to comprehend the lyrics; the melody itself was enough. A faster-paced piece featuring the robust sounds of intricate guitar arpeggios would command me to stand to my feet and to take part in the emotions shared by the audience and performers. The hair on the back of my neck stood on edge when Portuondo whispered her lyrics as if she was standing right next to me, whispering in my ear. Their musical genius was able to make me forget the world outside Krannert Center, truly immersing me into the melodic inflections of the music. The only thing missing was a lady partner to salsa with.

Alexander is a freshman in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected]