The legend that is the Buena Vista Social Club goes on. The original album by these veteran Cuban musicians has been for some time the biggest selling world music album ever. Now they had reached the northern extremity of Iceland and were setting about once again showcasing three of the band’s lynchpins for an entirely partisan sell-out crowd.
The frail but still brilliant Ruben Gonzalez, the brazen Omara Portuondo and the spritely and unmissable Ibrahim Ferrer were the named stars; they’ve all released “solo” albums since the original album appeared and their energy and vibrancy continues through all of them. I’d wanted to see this band live for years; I could have been disappointed by expecting so much, but they delivered more than I could have ever asked.
In the Laugardalshöllin, Iceland’s largest venue with a capacity of around 5.000, on came the brass section of the band, plus assorted instrumentalists recognisable from the Wim Wenders-directed film, Buena Vista Social Club, launching into a varied selection of tracks taken from the various solo albums of Gonzalez, Portuondo and Ferrer plus one or two numbers from the immediate predecessor to Buena Vista Social Club, The Afro-Cuban All Stars. Gonzalez, helped onto the stage in front of an emotional audience who were for the most part looking honoured to be in the same room as the great pianist, was helped to his piano stool and then let his fingers fly all over the grand, quick-witted and brilliant despite his obvious discomfort.
The man charged with being a master of ceremonies in the absence of Eliades Ochoa, Compay Segundo and Ry Cooder (all of whom are touring and releasing albums separately) was a trombone player who resembled a particularly uncompromising bouncer, who before and after every keystroke by Gonzalez announced “DON RUBEN GONZAL-EZ!!” to ecstatic applause. No-one cared that the elderly pianist was being overly lauded – he deserved it.
When he was helped back off the stage again to be replaced by a competent understudy, the second “star” appeared. Omara Portuondo came dancing and writhing onto the stage, the audience was on its feet, she was loving every minute and her voice filled the stadium with delight. Despite her age, Omara definitely knows how to shake some skirt, as she shook her flowing costume and danced in a mock-Egyptian manner, like the mother of one of The Bangles. The audience was by this time dancing in the aisles.
The undoubted star of the event, however, was the incredibly agile Ibrahim Ferrer who, at 80 years of age, offered a more energetic performance than most band leaders a quarter of his age would manage. He was all but climbing up the walls, resplendent in a spotless white suit and matching trademark cap, at once romantic and playful. Fresh from his collaboration with Damon Albarn on the Gorillaz album, Ferrer is clearly revelling in finally being a star after decades of obscurity and offered us Dos Gardenias as a highlight of the evening; a more moving performance would be difficult to envisage. But when Omara returned to the stage for duets, delight and even love were the almost physical manifestations of a charged atmosphere, heating up Reykjavik with Latin mood, energy and belief and musical experience.
An instrumental cover of Somewhere Over The Rainbow aside, this was a stunning performance from one of the world’s greatest bands. Long may they continue spreading their joy at fame around the world.