Pop: Grandest old masters of the Cuban rhythm method

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AT ONE point at the Royal Festival Hall on Friday, it looked and sounded as though half of Havana was on stage. Aside from a Communist revolution, more Latin-orientated excitement is rather hard to imagine.

The veteran pianist Ruben Gonzalez kicked things off with a set of fragile and heart-stoppingly beautiful small-group Cuban dance music. Most salsa we get to hear comes via New York or Miami, and is packed with steroidal jazz and soul muscle. By contrast, Gonzalez's music is dignified and gentle, almost classical in its precision. A wiry miniature pianist only just short of 80, he has long been considered one of the island's national treasures, ever since making his name in the legendary Arsenio Rodriquez's early Forties line-up. But as a working musician, Gonzalez appeared to have been lost in the annals of Cuban musical history until the World Circuit record label introduced him to Ry Cooder and set them both on the road towards a Grammy award.

At the South Bank, he played with the profound wit and humanity which distinguish the musician touched by genius. His set was the highlight of the evening.

It should not be surprising that old men can make such vital and sexy music; but somehow it always is. Gonzalez's rhythm section looked as if they belonged in a scene from an old folks' home directed by Dennis Potter. They suddenly unleashed a warm tide of rhythm that you could bathe in like milk, while their faces remained completely uninvolved. The sprightly 72-year-old sonero Ibrahim Ferrer - he made his name in the Fifties with Pacho Alonso's group - was merely the icing on the cake, tender but compelling whenever he opened his mouth.

But this was just the start of a three-hour celebration of the sound of Cuba. The 16-piece Afro-Cuban All Stars, complete with five soneros and a brass section that could split the atom, were all flash and flamboyance after Gonzalez's aristocratic opening. This was music to dance to. People tried to move in their seats but got their buttocks trapped between the arm rests, so they headed to the front of the hall to put on a display of British comedy dancing.

The South Bank security looked alarmed, but it didn't rattle the All Stars. As the music grew steamier, an octogenarian sonero held his microphone to his crotch like an impressive silver-headed phallus and thrust it rhythmically toward the faces of the dancers. As if a band featuring the likes of Pio Leyva and "Cachaito" Lopez weren't enough, a party of special guests, including the top trombonist Juan Pablo Torres, took to the seething stage at intervals throughout the night.

Before World Circuit encouraged him to perform again, Ruben Gonzalez was sitting at home listening to the woodworm eat his piano. He was the first man to take to the Royal Festival Hall stage and the last one to leave it; and when he did he was mobbed by fans younger than his own grandchildren. When he returns, expect more magic.