From the outset, the audience at this auditorium, located on the University of Michigan campus, knew they were in for something different. It was an evening of Latin music from these Cubano musicians and the lyrics, the attitudes and even the dialogue with the audience was entirely en espanol. But you didn't need a degree in Spanish to appreciate the skills and traditions flowing from the stage. Most listeners came, of course, curious to see Ferrer, the 72-year-old Havana singer and one of several "discovered" by LA-based musician Ry Cooder. Cubans had known Ferrar and his "son" singing style since the 1950s, but it was the Grammy-award winning, Cooder-produced "Buena Vista Social Club" recorded in 1997 -- and the Wim Wenders' film of the same name -- which introduced Ferrer to the rest of the world.
Call it the booming surge of Latino music, buoyed by such mainstream pop artists as Ricky Martin, even call it destiny -- whatever -- it is our luck to be living in a time that such musicians are allowed to travel outside their native Cuba and share their music with the world. The Ann Arbor concert opened with a seven-piece outfit headed by pianist Ruben Gonzalez, who is in his 80s, and had to be helped on and off the stage. But he immediately showed he needed no help on the piano keys. The frail-looking, gray-haired Gonzalez -- also on the "Club" recording -- led the way with a piano style and some exciting solos which Cooder has likened to a "Cuban cross between Thelonious Monk and Felix the Cat." Gonzalez, a classically taught pianist who nearly went into medicine, is part of a small cadre of Cuban pianists who shaped the sound of Cuban music over the past half-century, including developing the mambo. His playing was complimented by a three-man percussion section and three horns -- most notably Jesus "Aguaje" Ramos, who at one point strayed from the Latin rhythms to provide a tender "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" solo on trombone.
Most of Gonzalez's Grupo returned on stage as part of Ferrer's 14-piece Orquestra. Ferrer was joined on several numbers by Omara Portuondo, who on several occasions brought the otherwise-staid audience to their feet dancing to her vocals and hand-clapping. Salsa-rhythms, recognizable as the backbone to numerous popular recording artists ranging from Gloria Estefan to War, blended with modern jazz and ballads of the type one would associate with the late Nat King Cole or today's Tony Bennett. One highlight was a tender ballad "Dos Gardenias" sung by Ferrer as he clutched two of the delicate white flowers in his hands.
One thing which struck Cooder by the music he found in Cuba was it's pureness -- unaffected and unencumbered by the stylings of musicians in America or other more developed countries. That quality came through Saturday night, with every instrument being heard without overwhelming one another, as unfortunately happens too often with our "modern" music. The cross-country tour is expected to continue for several weeks and promises to further broaden our appreciation for music from around the world.
This review is copyright © 1999 by Mike Martindale, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved.