In 1996, Cuban musician Juan de Marcos González and American Ry Cooder, teamed up to record “Buena Vista Social Club.” The album introduced the thriving jazz scene of 1940s-1950s Havana to the world by way of an ensemble of former house musicians from one of the city’s top clubs, some of whom were pulled from retirement. The band became an international phenomenon.
Almost 20 years later, they’ve decided it’s time to say goodbye. On Sunday, their “Adios Tour” thrilled a sold out crowd at the Long Center. Only a handful of original members, now in their 80s, remain, but the band brought an ensemble of over a dozen players, who brought to life their rich catalog beautifully. In the early part of the set, the orquestra, skillfully led by trombonist Jesús “Aguaje” Ramos, honored each fallen member with a photo montage that tracked them through the early days in Cuba to the unlikely rise to an international stage. Songs flowed easily one into the next through extended jams, with a spotlight picking out each featured soloist.
All the music and the stage banter was in Spanish, a language I don’t speak. I was clearly in the minority surrounded by a worldly crowd who soaked up numerous references, jokes and nuances that passed right over me. But the emotional force of the music needs no translation. A nostalgic ache permeates Buena Vista Social Club’s music, and the combination of the evocative sounds and the vintage photos brought the glamour and romance of a bygone era front and center. The crowd warmly received it all, enthusiastically applauding after each song.
The first climatic moment came about 20 minutes in when vocalist and guitarist Eliades Ochoa arrived to sing us to the moon with “A La Luna Yo Mey Voy.” His fingers flew across the Cuban tres, a guitar-like instrument, coaxing an incredible range of sound out of the strings.
After Ochoa left, Ramos, had the house lights turned on to lead a sing-along of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which seemed like a brilliant idea until almost everyone in the audience realized, collectively we only know about two lines of that song. It was a lovely thought nonetheless.
Finally, the evening’s high point arrived, when Ramos introduce the “mas sexy” diva Omara Portuondo. The audience went wild. She was greeted with a standing ovation and someone threw a bouquet of flowers on the stage. At 85, Portuondo can’t move like she used to — though she did hike up her caftan to switch her hips a bit — but she was warm and gracious. And her voice is still the deep and operatically refined vehicle for raw emotion it always has been. She sang a few breathtaking numbers and then led the audience in a much more successful sing-along of “Besame Mucho.”
From there it was a fast and glorious ride to the end, with features from laud player Barbarito Torres, a spotlight on original trumpet player Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal, more solos from Ochoa and excellent ensemble work. Knowing it was the last time we would see this band live added an intensity to the experience and for the last 20 minutes or so the audience were on their feet as much as in they were in their seats. Some danced in the aisles. When the band closed out the show the crowd immediately erupted in a wholehearted call for an encore “¡Otra, otra, otra!”
The band complied, playing two of their biggest hits “Dos Gardenias” and “Campela,” the second of which unfolded as another fantastic sing-along. Buena Vista Social Club is one of the greatest second acts of our era, an incredible story of retired musicians returning to the stage with sounds that made the world fall in love. Though that sound will long live on through the musical renaissance they inspired, this is the final chapter of the Buena Vista Social Club’s story. And what a beautiful way to say goodbye.