Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sierra Maestra on US Tour: DC Concert

Sierra Maestra

It still feels close to miraculous to see Cuban bands touring again in the US. Sierra Maestra performed at the Artisphere ballroom (near Washington, DC) Tuesday night (7/19), with all the simple, rural majesty of the mountain range itself.

Sierra Maestra
Los cantantes: Jesus Bello, Alberto Valdes, and Luis Barzaga

In person, they sound exactly like their records, which are also notable for a distinct, steadfast sound over the years. There are many son bands, but you would never mix up any other with Sierra Maestra. Due in part, I think, to their signature vocalists, but also their arrangements that feel both classic and fresh. With very little effort, they seem to be getting every ounce of vibration out of the ensemble, as if sounding all the seeds in the maraca. There's something about the amplified acoustic son band, vs. a salsa band or big band or timba band, that retains a very organic energy: skins, wood, gourd, seeds, strings, and a little metal; it's a very lively, pleasing texture. Instantly transcultural, maybe because we were all close to the land once, at some point in our history.

They played two beautiful sets, in this huge ballroom (4,000 sq. ft.) that feels intimate because of its wide orientation and low, thrust stage. There's also a viewing balcony; I'll bet the sound would have been great up there, but I stayed near the dancefloor. Nice crowd for a Tuesday night, a lot of couples and families as well as DC casineros, dancers and deejays representing.

Sierra Maestra @ Artisphere  7/19/11

I talked briefly to tresero Emilio Ramos, and happened to catch video of a couple of his solos. Cool style, and an interesting pickup on the instrument. In the background of these photos, you can see the two percussionists switching off on bongos; I didn't talk to them but I think they are founding member Alejandro Suarez (above) and Eduardo Rico (below). I don't know if hand drummers work harder in a son ensemble, or if you can just hear them better than you would in a salsa band, with all the horns and timbales. I wouldn't doubt it. These guys percolated hard all night, and traded hot solos on a few tunes.

Sierra Maestra @ Artisphere  7/19/11

Sierra Maestra @ Artisphere  7/19/11

After the show, Jesus Bello (above) and Luis Barzaga were nice enough to record WXDU station IDs for me on my audio recorder. Jesus was very friendly with fans and stayed in the hall during the break, and post-show, to chat and take pictures.

Sierra Maestra

The youngest member, I'm sure, must be 28-year-old trompetista Yelfris Valdes. The band is known an incubator for Cuba's top trumpet talent, keeping the traditional style of son playing alive. Its former horn players include Jesus Alemañy and Julito Padron.

Sierra Maestra

In back, in the rhythm section, there's a dedicated guiro player (I love that), Carlos Puisseaux, and leaning in close to the drummers, bass guitarist Eduardo Himely. Both are founding members who've been with the band since its founding in the 1970s.

Sierra Maestra

The genres they played included son (fast); son (slow), which is not cha cha cha, but hardly recognized as such by dancers outside of Cuba anymore; sucu sucu ("Felipe Blanco"), a genre someone from La Isla de la Juventud once told me is native to that island; changui, from Guantanamo; and even a conga santiaguera (marking the first time in my life I actually joined in a conga line--and enjoyed it).

These rumberos, who are active in the Afro-Cuban cultural scene in DC, were taking advantage of the last exuberant song of the night. Dancers: Oscar Rousseaux (white pants), and Adrian Valdivia:

Note to local arts presenters: Sierra Maestra would be a fantastic Cuban band to build in to your next arts season, whenever they may be touring again. I guess we have to go back to Buena Vista and start from ground zero, in terms of building audience recognition for Cuban music again, but that is what makes this group a perfect segue. And, if possible, make it a DANCE and find a venue that will welcome those of us who love and honor this cultural tradition as our own, not just your high-end concert series subscribers.

For example:


Duke Performances has booked Joan Soriano, "El Duque de la Bachata," into Motorco this coming September 23. Bachata, a Dominican folk form that is a direct spin-off of son, is best presented where it can be danced, as well as listened to, so kudos goes to Aaron Greenwald and his staff at DP for getting it right. Looking foward to that show.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Sierra Maestra @ Artisphere in Virginia TUESDAY (7/19)

Before Buena Vista, there was Sierra Maestra. Since the '70s, it's been Cuba's flagship son band, with a traditional formation that still includes clave, maracas, trompeta, bongo, y tres. But, this is no music for oldtimers: Sierra Maestra plays modern son, hard and fast, infused with the rocking, relaxed groove native to Cuba's eastern province of Oriente.

On tour in the U.S. from July 14 through 26, Sierra Maestra plays a dance in the Artisphere ballroom in Arlington, VA (Metro DC) this Tuesday (7/19). It will be the venerable soneros' only tour stop in the Southeast. Tickets are $22 and $25, with a dance lesson at 7:30 pm, and dancing from 8:30 to 11 pm. Artisphere Communications and Marketing Director Annalisa Meyer says the ballroom space comprises 4000 sq. ft., with a stage that still offers an intimate concert experience. Dancers, if you're anywhere near D.C., seize this chance to see one of Cuba's legendary performers in IDEAL ballroom conditions!

Former members of Sierra Maestra include tresero Juan de Marcos (who masterminded Buena Vista Social Club), and some of Cuba's top trumpeters such as Jesus Alemañy (who went on to form Cubanismo) and Julito Padron (who has toured with Afro Cuban All Stars).

Here's the active lineup:*

First Name / Family Names / Instrument / Founding Member (1976)

Luis Manuel BARZAGA SOSA - Vocals , claves / YES
Eduardo Idelfonso HIMELY PINO - Bass guitar / YES
Emilio José RAMOS BATISTA - Tres
Eduardo Manuel RICO MENENDEZ - Congas, bongo, cowbell
Jesus Eusebio BELLO DIAZ - Vocals, guitar
Alejandro SUAREZ GALARRAGA - Claves, cowbell / YES
Alberto Virgilio VALDES DECALO - Vocals, maracas / YES
Yelfris Carlos VALDES ESPINOSA - Trumpet

*thanks to Annalisa Meyer of Artisphere for providing advance information and publicity photo.


Sierra Maestra live at Artisphere, Arlington, VA - July 19, 2011

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Heat and Harmony: GarDel @ Eno Fest

Eno festival-goers didn't battle the 99-degree heat and humidity Monday, July 4, so much as give in to it: bikinis, shorts and sunscreen were the order of the afternoon, as Orquesta GarDel threw down a secure, relaxed set. Members of the African American Dance Ensemble, who performed just before GarDel at the Meadow Stage, stayed and rallied for the big salsa party that developed on the lawn.

Down one percussionist (regular conguero Jose Sanchez), GarDel just shuffled a few cards in the rhythm section, moving Julio Correa from his regular position on bongos, to congas, as backing vocalist Ramon Ortiz took the bongo chair. Some fun and new solos caught my ears, from pianist Eric Hirsh and saxophonist Tim Smith, among others.

GarDel @ The Eno, July 4,  2011
Horn blower Blu Thompson, Bassist-of-the-sky Pete Kimosh

GarDel's recent Motorco show (still haven't blogged that, but some coverage will be coming soon, I promise) was a turning point, post-EP-release, in terms of live performance. Picking up confidence from the sold-out release party, GarDel seemed to have exhaled and come back revitalized at the June show, rewriting arrangements to provide more elbow room. Mining the tropical momentum of the rhythm itself, they are starting to understand that relaxing tempos can actually expand the energy.

Switching gears comfortably, the Eno set sounded tight, from a fast-clipping descarga, to wide-awake salsas, and the slower "Gracias Te Doy," Nelson Delgado's beautiful cha cha chá to his mother. Undeterred by the heat, GarDel's cadre of dance followers was the strongest its been at Eno, leaping into motion as soon as the band hit the stage.

Many great moments slipped by my camera, but here is the timba I like most of all, "Lo Que Tu Querias," which closed the set:

Not long after GarDel finished, quenching rain cut the festival short, now in its 32nd year of raising funds to preserve the local watershed. I was sorry not to hear closer Peter Lamb & The Wolves, but the sound of rain drumming on the tree canopies at West Point on the Eno Park was fair recompense. It was a great day for music and community in Durham.

Happy 4th, everybody!

GarDel @ The Eno, July 4, 2011
Eno festival goers showing their colors