Thursday, July 21, 2011
Sierra Maestra on US Tour: DC Concert
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.