Just imagine if there had been an economic and cultural blockade of Britain ever since the Suez crisis. The Beatles could never have happened and so the old big bands would still be alive, playing Saturday night variety shows at the Palladium, relayed live on the state-run television service. Fronted by foghorn-voiced singers like Anne Shelton and Ruby Murray, the bands might eventually come to the attention of jaded consumers in the more developed countries overseas. Package tours of elderly Brit musicians could then begin to travel the globe, enthralling audiences with their old-style cockney grooves. Someone might even make a film about it.
You can't help thinking such nonsense when faced by the wonderfully anachronistic music and performance-style of Cuban artists like Omara Portuondo and her band. Vocalist Portuondo is one of the stars of Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club movie (now available on video), and although she has been described as the Cuban Billie Holiday or Edith Piaf, she's perhaps more like the Cuban Shirley Bassey, or any one of a number of 1950s' big band singers. Though she specialises in down-tempo, slow-burning songs dealing with love and loss - what in her heyday was known as the "feelings" style - when the 69 year-old Portuondo consents to let rip (and she does so only occasionally), she really belts it out. As her tonsils tremble, the pneumatic-drill rumble of her vibrato appears to threaten the foundations of the hall .
Dressed in a black two-piece suit and yellow chignon, Portuondo has a truly regal presence, accentuated by a considerable sexual magnetism. When for one number she dances a cha-cha with her young trumpeter, there's a real frisson; she could, you feel, eat him for breakfast, and he looks as if he knows it, too. As she sashays across the stage, conducting the band with a series of expressive tic-tac gestures, Portuondo becomes almost girlish, despite her imperious mien. Although she protects her voice very well, it doesn't seem at all in decay. She may even be singing as well now as at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, when she was playing a Miami hotel and chose to return home while her sister (also a singer), stayed on. Nearly 40 years later, Portuondo has at last got the break she's been waiting for.
This show was nearly stolen from Portuondo by the support band, Orquesta Aragon (with whom she used to sing in the '70s). Playing in the charanga style, with a front-line of four violins and a flute, Orquesta Aragon exemplified the time-bound pleasures of the new (ie. very old) Cuban musical revolution, and the reason why it has captivated so many people.
Rejoicing in the Spanish practices of overmanning that characterise Cuban bands, the group displayed a command of both musicianship and stagecraft that would shame almost anyone.
Towards the end, as the septuagenarian dancer moon-walked across the stage, and the timbales player took a solo with his patent leather shoes while balancing on a revolving stool, the performance began to invoke a kind of divine madness. As the three cartoon-like vocalists did Hank Marvin and the Shadows formation dance routines while the violinists sawed out a trance-inducing riff in the background, you began to wonder if the Beatles weren't a terrible mistake after all.
'Buena Vista Social Club Presents Omara Portuondo' is on World Circuit Records