Oxford celebrated the sunniest day of the year so far by welcoming Cuba to Middle England. The 12-piece Orquesta Buena Vista that took to the New Theatre’s stage featured three of the original performers from 1996’s Buena Vista Social Club – the Grammy award winning, world music word-of-mouth record-breaker. Joining them was the album’s original leading lady, Omara Portuondo, a true veteran of Cuba’s musical golden age of the 1950s and now 80 years old.
Last in Oxford in 2008, the collective currently touring under the Orquesta banner are a mix of old and new and together radiate a class and Latin cool that demands respect. Not one, not two, but three percussionists kept the rhythms coming, with bongos, congas and timbales, and Jesus ‘Aguaje’ Ramos seamlessly slipped between the roles of trombonist, singer and dancer, whilst also conducting the entire band. Omara Portuodo, wearing a full length pink ensemble and matching head piece, danced across the stage, repeatedly flirted with the audience (“Mas?” she’d ask, lifting her hem above her ankles) and cajoled the entire theatre into taking to its feet. And when ordered to by the world’s most energetic octogenarian, it’s hard to say no.
In an evening of virtuoso performances, it was Rolando Luna’s incredible piano playing that was the most impressive. Expertly blending classical, jazz and Latin influences, it was presumably him that led to the band somewhat perplexingly blending ‘As Time Goes By’ with ‘Beethoven’s Fifth’. Amongst Buena Vista staples like ‘El Cuarto De Tula’, ‘Chan Chan’ and ‘El Carretero’, there was also room for a jazz piano-led exploration of ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’. However, the highlight of the night turned out to be a duet between Ramos and 77 year-old trumpet legend Manuel ‘Guajiro’ Mirabal. A small, portly man, Mirabal spent most of the evening swaying slightly out of time with the other trumpeters, but when given the floor he showed that blasting out spectacular top-note solos has no age limit. Between them, Ramos and Mirabal’s trombone-and-trumpet rendition of ‘Autumn Leaves’ reached a breathtaking peak of melodic cool, tinged with a sadness and quiet nostalgia that was beautiful.
As the night drew to a close, Omara Portuondo, who’d been resting on a chair, got up again to lead the audience in singing the original Cuban version of ‘Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps’, a task only slightly hindered by the audience’s struggle to repeatedly pronounce ‘Quizás! Quizás! Quizás!’ correctly. Luis Alemany, an elderly trumpeter in an excellent white cap, danced around the stage flourishing a yellow handkerchief, and at the end of the show my friend wondered whether the NHS couldn’t get the Orquesta Buena Vista to take charge of the nation’s geriatric care.