Live Review: Buena Vista Social Club

Omara Portuondo beamed with pride as she waved her nation’s flag with Buena Vista Social Club. Adoring fans had thrown it onstage as Cuba’s best-known musical export waved ‘adios’ at Leeds Town Hall. This sublime gig, at the midpoint of their farewell tour in the UK, had come to a rapturous close, with the audience providing several standing ovations and dancing in the aisles during the 90-minute tour-de-force. Portuondo and the band savoured every moment.

Omara Portuondo
Omara Portuondo

The 84-year-old vocalist had already whipped the audience into a fervour, joining the band after three songs, exclaiming how special the night was and leading a set of the band’s much-adored classics. And Portuondo was still scatting rhythmically as the band took their adulation and bid goodbye.

The supergroup, named after a Havana members’ club that closed in the 1940s, started as a collaboration between the American guitarist Ry Cooder and the Cuban bandleader Juan de Marcos González. They recorded a highly acclaimed album after a week together, resulting global stardom and an Oscar-nominated documentary directed by Wim Wenders. Some 18 years later, their final Lost and Found compilation of unreleased material will be well-received.  Appetite for the group remains strong – judging by the sell-out crowd – bound into an increasing interest in all things Cuban. Fitting tributes were paid via a big screen to members passed – Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Rubén González, Orlando “Cachaíto” Lopez, Pío Leyva, Manuel “Puntillita” Licea – adding to the emotion of a performance drenched in the palatable finality of their impending retirement. Guitarist and vocalist Eliades Ochoa, 68, the only other surviving member alongside Portuondo, also gave a fitting swan song as he picked his strings with precision. His showboating towards the end of the gig was a highlight.

Ochoa performing live May 2009. Photo: Juan Gonzales Andres
Ochoa performing live May 2009. Photo: Juan Gonzales Andres

Although other band members have been ever-changing during the band’s latter years, their expertise and passion shone brightly, their musicianship tight. This is a historical moment for Cuban music and Lost and Found provides an appropriate and fitting end. Their concert is also a must – this ‘adios’ will live long in the memory.

Buena Vista Social Club’s remaining UK dates are at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, April 10th; Manchester Bridgewater Hall, April 12th; Birmingham Symphony Hall, April 13th and Royal Opera House, London, July 30th.

Lost and Found is out on World Circuit Records. It contains forgotten tracks and unreleased live performances. World Circuit’s Nick Gold said: “Over the years we were often asked what unreleased material was left in the vaults. We knew of some gems, favourites amongst the musicians, but we were always too busy working on the next project to go back and see what else we had. When we eventually found time, we were astonished at how much wonderful music there was.”

For more from Buena Vista Social Club and music from around the Caribbean, click here.

Buena Vista Social Club, Leeds Town Hall
Buena Vista Social Club, Leeds Town Hall


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