“I used to be a younger one and now I am one of the older ones,” said 55-year-old Juan de Marcos Tuesday night to a mostly full Strathmore as he was introducing his band, the Afro-Cuban All Stars. Marcos’s age comment was a reference to the Buena Vista Social Club, whom he helped put together and played with in the 1990s. Marcos, who conducts, arranges, and plays the tres (a small guitar-like instrument) had toured and recorded with a version of the Afro-Cuban All Stars back then that included a mixture of old and younger Cubans who played traditional Cuban dance ala Buena Vista but with a few more modern touches. After being unable to get past Bush era visa restrictions, Marcos has put together a new 14-member All Stars that include Cuban musicians mostly in their 30s and 40s who live around the world and could obtain visas to play in the States.
While I recall an earlier version Afro-Cuban All Stars set at the Barns of Wolf Trap that consisted largely of gloriously rhythmic, traditional Cuban dance music, Tuesday night’s two-hour program from the current incarnation did not maintain the same momentum, but had portions that really clicked. Like the earlier model, the group’s approach is largely traditional but adds in some occasional contemporary accents. Trying apparently to reach out and put on a more varied show for a sitting theatre audience, Marcos, with his now gray dreadlocks sticking out from under his trademark beret, frequently slowed the tempo of songs to let every member veer from their charts, solo, and show off their Latin-Jazz chops. That meant solos by all three trumpeters, the two trombonists, numerous piano player solos, and the timbales, congas, and bongo players. Everyone had at least one but the standup bassist, and most were too long. The piano player, Nachito Herrera, was an exception—offering noisy, cinematic, and melancholy tones plus classic Latin rhythmic fingerwork. He started “Amor Verdadero” with warm, romantic chords before the band joined in and propelled the son rhythms as the vocalists joined in with some nearly pop vocals.
The three vocalists who were onstage for most but not all of the set ranged in age and style—36-year-old Gilito Pinera added some rap-like vocals and salsa romantica touches, 62-year-old Evelio Galan, in a white suit and hat, was the improvising sonero, and 40-year-old Emilito Suarez blended elements of the older and younger styles. They also did Latin meets Motown group choreography with a few modern, thrusting and grinding gyrations thrown in, and added to the percussion by rubbing sticks against hollowed out gourds called guiras.
De Marcos was also very chatty. He approves of Obama, likes allowing Cuban-Americans sending more money home, and he still hopes for freedom there. He noted how the pianist Herrera had learned from Buena Vista’s Ruben Gonzales. He also slow-danced and salsa’d with his wife on a modernized danzon named for her called “Gliceria.”
The hooting Cubans and others in the audience who wanted to dance finally got a shot for the final two numbers. As the band revved up together and the horn section moved to the front, the singers tossed in a bit of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry.” Soon the syncopation picked up courtesy of the clave beat on the cowbells, snare drum, congas, and guiras. The horn section boomed together and added jazzy fills as the vocalists led the crowd in the show-closing arm-waving and added sung and spoken closing verses.