Artsweek had yet to see a 73-year -old woman salsa. That is, until Monday night, when the pride of Cuba, the Buena Vista Social Club, took the stage with Omara Portuondo at its lead.
It was a no-surprises quality concert, where the music outranked the physical performance, and where the history of the music added an incredible, utterly necessary dimension to even the simplest moves.
With the grace and presence afforded to being the legend that she is, Portuondo took the stage and quickly brought the audience under her spell. The Buena Vista Social Club behind her added all the right elements of salsa and bolero, or ballad, to complement this magical combination of African drums, electric guitar and brass instruments. For example, when she was singing “La Negrita,” which is based on a lullaby, three percussionists playing thumping African drums accompanied her.
Portuondo, in an informal gathering at the Women’s Center before the concert, spoke about how the influences of Cuban music, both African and Spanish, are reflected through her.
“I am a mulatta, like the music,” Portuondo said, whose Spanish mother dealt with racial problems when she fell in love with Portuondo’s father, a black Afro-Cuban. “I want to tell about Cuban culture and spread Cuban music.”
The crowd clearly absorbed this celebrated Cuban heritage at Monday’s concert. Encouraged by Portuondo herself, the audience got on its feet and salsa danced in the aisles, on the chairs… wherever. It was truly a sight to see: a crowd of Santa Barbarans out on a work night, shimmying to their hearts’ content all over the Arlington.
Most interestingly, it seemed to barely matter that most of the audience didn’t understand the bulk of what Portuondo was saying, considering she spoke in Spanish all night, except for the occasional “thank you very much.” Artsweek could only conclude that Portuondo and gang gave a fantastic taste of what it might have been like in 1960s Cuba, dancing away at the Tropicana. Apparently, even an aging salsa queen can get the masses to their feet and knock them over with devastating power.