New York, Miami and California are now receiving a steady flow of Cuban bands on tour, but none (that I know of) have touched the mid-Atlantic region--until now: Manolito Simonet made landfall at Arlington, Virginia last Saturday night, the first Cuban timba band to play the D.C. area since the relaxing of visa restrictions for Cuban artists. For Manolito y Su Trabuco, it's the first U.S. tour since late 2000-early 2001.
Manolito Simonet, live in Arlington on Saturday night
On May 29, he was on his way to the capital from triumphant shows in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and just the night before, in Patterson, New Jersey.
I arrived at the venue late Saturday afternoon: Yorktown Bistro, a sleepy Peruvian bar and restaurant on Lee Highway, capacity 250, with a small stage against one wall. Could it really be that a 17-piece Cuban band was playing here tonight? My $30 advance ticket was already paid for. Come what may, whether Manolito played or not, I would be there for the ride.
At my hotel, a shower and a take-out salad later, I headed back to the Bistro around 8:30 pm. Kitchen smoke still hovered in the dining room, where, nearly to my surprise, 6 or 7 guys were doing sound check. Trabuco drummer Roicel Riveron, conguero El Lelo, and bassist Roberto "Chino" Vazquez were making plenty of noise, as the Cuban sound engineers hooked up cables. Roicel and Lelo were up on the tiny riser, but 2 keyboards and all the mics for the singers and brass section overflowed around the stage, with stadium-sized speakers stacked to either side. Reyna La Farandulera, a local D.C. timba deejay, already had her iPod stereo set up on a table draped with a Cuban flag. Sure enough, this spectacle was really going to materialize; I let the wonder seep over me.
Drummer Roicel Riveron and bassist Roberto Vazquez eating dinner after soundcheck
Talked with Roicel and Roberto, while they hung out and ordered pescado frito with rice and beans. (The food looked delicious.) They were in good spirits, and friendly, although a little road weary. Roicel reported good audiences everywhere, but not quite as jam packed in Chicago. After eating they split for their hotel to shower and change.
Meanwhile, Reyna stoked up the timba as more dancers arrived, and I enjoyed watching the young, stylish Cuban-Casino scene in action. It was a hot room. The audience for Manolito shaped up to be a mix of Peruvians, Cubans, and casineros of various backgrounds.
DJ Reyna La Farandulera (right) con una amiga Cubana during Manolito's set
We were competing against Tito Rojas that night, not far away at The Salsa Room (see pictures of that show here). That venue, roomier, nicer, and more experienced at handling big tours, will be the setting for the king of Cuban timba bands, Pupy y Los Que Son Son in Arlington on Saturday, June 19. Reyna La Farandulera, a personal friend of Pupy's, is also going to DJ that night, and I can tell you, her music is beautiful. D.C. has got Cuban flavor!
The band was slated to start at 10 pm, and I started getting nervous (again) around midnight, when Manolito hadn't arrived yet. Could it be that this deal would somehow fall through at the last minute? It seemed possible. By now the room was packed and restless, flags were out (Peru and Cuba), and fans were staking out prime positions in the permeable "stage" area. A woman pointed out to me as being from the Cuban Interests Section in D.C. kept checking the window frequently, so I hadn't given up hope.
Around 12:30, I got the good word that the Trabuco had arrived. There was frenzy when they came in the front door and went straight to the stage; I had to engage in full body contact with other fans just to hold my spot near the piano long enough to video this first tune:
You can see Manolito pulling back his piano at the end, in a bid for more space--to no avail. Ultimately, a bouncer was stationed directly in front of him for the rest of show, to keep the pile of crazies from knocking over his piano. Trying to keep this crowd under control was like trying to keep the cork in a bottle of champagne.
Lead singer (in hat) Ricardo Amaray
It was phenomenal to be there, in a relatively intimate setting, with one of Cuba's top timba bands, bringing home to me just how essential it is to see these bands live, both to keep up with their frequent evolution and the turnover of individual musicians, and to understand just how these bands work as ensembles. There is no substitute! Thank Yemaya, the genie is out of the bottle. Hopefully, a timba renaissance is on the way, and these tours will be reaching out (once again) to North Carolina and the heartland soon. Before, in the late 90s and early '00s, the focus of US interest was on traditional Cuban music, and it seemed like the well got cut off just as people were getting introduced to contemporary Cuban "salsa" (aka timba). With all the pent-up hunger for Cuban culture out there, I think we have a chance this time. When you observe the rest of the world, it's painfully obvious that we are culturally far behind them, in timba terms, but also that it is possible for timba to thrive and for audiences everywhere to learn what it is all about. Es solo musica, like it says on the Egrem studio door; just go and feel it, the Cubans will bring the party to you. Just like they have for generations!
Teclado (keyboardist): Miguel Angel "Pan con Salsa" de Armas; singer (in white belt) Lazaro Alejandro "Miami" Diaz
Flutist David Bencomo singing coros (foreground); violinist Nicolas Gaston.
What I admire about Manolito is not only his drive and precision ("disciplina!") from the piano, but that his songwriting and arranging has a truly popular, fluid timba/R&B sensibility. One can sense that he's listening to world markets and probably imagining ways to adapt to greater opening one day. This puts a lot of variety in his dance albums, so an album like Control moves through different generic references and sound colors, giving it album-length listenability as well as pure dancefloor power. Apparently he's hit really big in Peru, which kind of makes sense when you hear his cumbia adaptations and even Andean keyboard colors. In any case, these Peruvian fans were impressively tuned in to timba, and singing along with all the lyrics.
Noticeable that night, and different from most shows: There was no merch, no sheet music, just an ineluctable flow of tunes with no breaks as Manolito led each one off. This is what a Cuban band does, you can't beat them rhythmically or for showmanship. It's all about pushing the party forward. The singers, Ricardo Amaray, Pepitin and Miami, sounded great, and were stoking fan interaction the whole time. What I didn't notice right away was that the cellist, Orestes Calderon, didn't play, due to lack of space on stage. I saw him wandering around with his cello in the back by the soundman, and chatted with him for awhile; he asked me if we were close to the White House. I don't know if he got a chance to do any sightseeing later, but it would have been great to take these guys on a tour of the capital with a documentary camera crew in tow, like the Buena Vista guys touring New York City landmarks in the Wim Wenders' film.
The encore had the advantage of better lighting(for video), as the bar had turned up the lights. So, here's the closing, ending with the anthem "Locos Por Mi Habana," which spawned the oft-quoted coro, because in Havana there's a pile of crazies, and my favorite, if you're crazy, Havana is your psychologist:
...and Manolito has left the building.
Get ready folks, this is just the beginning. Pupy, Bamboleo and other tours are not far behind.
June 19, Pupy y Los Que Son Son @ The Salsa Room in DC