Splendour on the grass

Buena Vista Social Club | Hyde Park, London
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The Independent Culture

After the records, the film, and the general ballyhoo surrounding Cuban son, all the world has now heard of Buena Vista Social Club, so it was no surprise that Hyde Park's capacious arena should have been full to overflowing on Saturday night. This was their last appearance in Europe before the spring of 2001, and word had spread among the faithful.

After the records, the film, and the general ballyhoo surrounding Cuban son, all the world has now heard of Buena Vista Social Club, so it was no surprise that Hyde Park's capacious arena should have been full to overflowing on Saturday night. This was their last appearance in Europe before the spring of 2001, and word had spread among the faithful.

Warm late-afternoon sun, a multi-racial audience of serious devotees, a prohibition on cans or bottles in the auditorium - the stage seemed set for a thoroughly civilised evening. The only problem was the deafening amplification used to project Juan de Marcos's Afro-Cuban All-Stars, who were to be the warm-up group for the main event. My seat in the fifth row posed a dilemma: should I sit there with ear plugs, or lurk at the edge of the arena and watch it all on the video screens? It occurred to me, as so often at outdoor concerts, that the champagne picnickers outside the charmed enclosure were getting a better deal for free.

The nattily dreadlocked JDM and his band performed with infectious verve, and their pianist - name inaudible - was plausibly introduced as "the new Ruben Gonzalez". But when the amplification was turned down and their mentors supplanted them, the real Ruben Gonzalez appeared, to wild applause. First the shock: he was now so crippled with arthritis that he could hardly walk. Then the miracle: the moment he touched the keyboard he was transformed.

For a wonderful half hour he regaled us with playing of singular grace and force - intermittently encouraged by having his head stroked by the band leader - before being helped off stage to make way for the first lady of Cuban son, Omara Portuondo.

Portuondo's sculptured features seem made to grace album covers, and her elfin manner was bewitching, but in strictly musical terms her performance was nothing special, because, in some curious way, her voice lacked magic. No matter: under her commanding presence, the evening sped on with poise and assurance, until the boss himself appeared.

With his little-boy voice and puckish manner, Ibrahim Ferrer is not the sort you'd expect to find in control of a band like this, but he does it all by charm and sheer driving energy, improvising his cheeky love ballads over the repetitive chants of his chorus and the gentle blare of saxophones. Where JDM and co were brash, these players had poise and restraint, as befitted musicians who cut their professional teeth in the Thirties.

Then came the encores: Ruben, then Omara, then Ibrahim, then all the instrumentalists one by one (listen out for a new keyboard wizard called Adolfo Pichardo) until the love-in had to stop. This was a special moment in time, because they can't go on for ever. They were here, we were there, and it was marvellous.

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