News of the 'Pasión De Buena Vista' show rattled along the local salsa grapevine a good three months before the performance date, but work had me wriggling on tenterhooks until the weekend preceding. Fortunately there are certain advantages to attending shows unaccompanied; the best of which is the likelihood of securing good "late return" single seats, and my slightly-worse-for-wear ticketer helped find a great one in Circle.
I knew little about this troupe when I parked myself in the plush chair, so I made a start by ogling the stage layout. It looked promising: keyboard, bass, a trapset-timbale combination, a conga-bongó combination, a microphone setup for a four or five piece brass section, a tres on a stand, and a full trinity of batá drums; plus there was ample stage-front for at least four dancing couples to do their rumba thing. Then Meinl logos on the congas caught my eye and my hunch was confirmed by the souvenir programme: this was a German production.
The glossy booklet was filled with attractive earthy-toned action shots of dancers and singers captured mid-performance. It exuded dynamism. Delving deeper, the supporting texts of introduction and biography of the star vocalists came across as stilted and typographically challenged. This was an uncommitted effort through a patent lack of attention.
I sincerely hoped this wasn't an indicator.
A solo female dancer opened the show, moving to the sounds of the batá. Dressed in red and black and clutching a crooked stick, she was clearly the representation of Eleguá, Orisha of pathways, who is traditionally invoked at the beginning of all Afro-Cuban occassions. While her circular shrugging movements were correct, the stillness of her spinal axis showed me that sacred dance was not her bag - this was a rendition purely for the commercial world.
Eleguá's invocation gave way to the introduction of four other figures dressed in green and black; gold and blue; red and white; and blue and white, representing Ogún, Ochún, Changó, and Yemayá respectively. They symbolically enacted a pataki [Yoruban fable] capturing their sometimes tumultuous relationships with each other, although it was not clear which fable (or combinations of fable), and which version was being told.
Advertently or not, this act set out the entire premise of the show: the conjuration of a 'Fantastical Cuba' as escape, and one that host Knut Gambusch's stilted narrative tried to reinforce again and again. Otherwise, there was no overarching structure of storytelling that I could discern.
The two setlists punctuated by an intermission comprised of some very Latin standards: 'Bésame mucho', 'Quizás, quizás, quizás', Benny Moré's homage to his birthplace 'Santa Isabel de las Lajas'; 'El Manisero'; 'Píntate los labios María' complete with a Michael Jackson dance tribute; and 'Changó 'ta vení' interpreted as a pilón.
Modern classics also had their place, such as Francisco Repilado's 'Chan Chan'; Celia Cruz's popular interpretation 'La vida es un carnaval' where the dancers were appropriately dressed in the blue and white of her patron Orisha; and Gloria Estefan's 'Mi Tierra'. The latter struck me as unusual; that a Resident Cuban band would choose to play an Exilic Cuban composition.
There was one little treat - an original number by tresero/trombonist Yuilie Velazquez-Guerra, arranged as a songo con marcha. Although bringing in the kick drum in on the downbeats bogged down the rhythm somewhat (I suspect it was meant to imply the bomba) the highly compact show band 'La Ideal' negotiated complex timba, and the other genres demanded of it, with flair. You'd have to go a long way to find a more professional support band; you noticed them only when they wanted to be noticed, because La Ideal knew what the true star of the show was.
I once thought that Ibrahim Ferrer was one of a kind. But that night I was entranced with the voice of someone cut from the same cloth - Inocente "Pachín" Fernandez-Jímenez. His phrasing, his attack, and his vocal texture was so similar; and yet so authentically individual, that they could have been brothers. I gave silent thanks for the chance experience. While it's true that Maida Castaneda-Cordovi and Tomás Sanchez-Aguilera have the strong voices we have come to expect in the Cuban vein, Inocente's lyrical qualities place him very much in a league apart.
I could have listen to him 'til dawn.
In that light, the dancing was disappointing; the lackadaisical nature marked it as the afterthought of the production. Although a myriad of genres were attempted, from conga de comparsa to chachachá, their navigation lurched from placidly mid-stream to dangerously rocky. There were three prominent weaknesses:
- The dancers lacked the stagecraft to draw in and engage their audience.
- The angular velocities of their movements were constant but too slow. Whilst it gave their execution the characteristic Cuban smoothness, the manoeuvres were never properly finished. The result was a great deal of jarring and rushed transitions as dancers played 'catch-up' with their routine elements.
- The choreography emphasised quantity and not quality, the dancers always pulled up one iteration short of demonstrating virtuosity.
Pasión de Buena Vista feels as if it started life as a business plan as opposed to a burning desire to entertain. The mimicry of concept places it as a fast follower to "Lady Salsa" but without the cohesive storytelling nor attention to detail. Both have tried to leverage off World Circuit's Buena Vista Social Club brand, with the German production more blatantly so - the attempted linkages via the artist biographies border on the barefaced and read as tenuous at best.
For me, the frontispiece collage of the souvenir programme is the perfect identity for Pasión de Buena Vista. Some people would either not notice or be ambivalent out its patchwork character. Others might be sensitive to the artistic contrivance and feel the jarring of its elements.
These people would feel the same respectively of the show.
I'd go to it again. For the luscious singing and the music. The dancing can wait.