Cuba came to town when Omara Portuondo of Buena Vista Social Club fame played two nights at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall (
The well-attended concerts climaxed on Saturday with a 75th birthday celebration for the grand dame of latin jazz.
It was clear soon after the lights came up that Portuondo was in a party mood and she was soon doing little jigs in between vocals. An excited fan managed to jump on the stage and present Portuondo with Cuba's national flag, flowers filled her dressing room and the evening ended on a genuine high note with an operatic final song.
The evening began with a short musical introduction from her 13-piece band, led by the imposing saxophonist and musical director Alfred Thompson. Then Portuondo glided on stage to some rousing cheers and launched into Tabu, an intensely melodic song with a touch of spice. With the next tune, the rhythmically impressive Hermosa Habana,
Portuondo really got her swing on and began jiving across the stage.
If one person thought it, everyone must have done: If I'm still dancing like that at 75, I won't be doing too bad.
She added the quintessentially Cuban song Guantanamera to the playlist early on. This had the effect of firing up the audience, which tends to be on the reserved side at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. But not on Saturday, when it clapped, danced and sang along with gusto. As the evening progressed a repertoire honed over 60 years revealed itself.
Portuondo showed off the many aspects of her character, launching into big-band numbers with a sassy, energetic drive, or sitting at a table simply accompanied by guitar, violin or keyboards. All the band members had something to say and took their chances when Portuondo strayed off stage for a breather after every three or four songs.
Pianist Emilio Morales showboated his way through a couple of solos, the lead violinist Yelaine Puentes excited and Jorge Chicoy on electric guitar had the deftest of touches and managed to play his solo with the guitar perched on his head and behind his back. Band leader Alfred Thompson strutted his stuff through the extended jam Mania Mambo.
But, inevitably, the spotlight shone brightest on Portuondo and halfway through the concert she extemporized a Happy Birthday tribute to herself that had the crowd standing up once again.
All too soon it seemed the concert appeared to have finished and the cue for an encore came. Portuondo's response was to come back with four or five songs, including a homage to the late Ibrahim Ferrer, who died in August. Though she did not sing, at the audience's request, Silencia, (which she crooned with Ferrer in the documentary film Buena Vista Social Club) she did manage a sentimental version of the Taiwanese classic, The Moon Represents My Heart
It was an impressive concert. Though Portuondo's voice has inevitably thinned with age and there were notes she did not try to make, her pitch, phrasing, timing and experience more than made up for it. This was summed up by the operatic last number in which she held the final note and sustained it while the accompaniment faded. It was a great end to a wonderful performance: a critical and popular success.