Live Review: Afro Cuban Allstars (Duke University 3/23/13)
At Duke University’s Page Auditorium Saturday night, Duke Performances director Aaron Greenwald cut short his introduction of the Afro Cuban Allstars “in order to achieve maximum musical velocity.” It wasn’t long in coming. Moments after trooping onstage, the All Stars revved up to redline and kept an infectious, syncopated groove going for nearly two hours.
The All Stars are a 15 piece ensemble, bold and brassy, spanning 4 generations. Juan De Marcos, the group’s leader, is the perfect musical ambassador. Dreadlocks flying, Marcos bounced around the stage conducting and performing, providing gruff counterpoint to the three other singers, who offered up syncopated soulful shouts and crooned mellow ballads throughout the evening.
It’s a family affair for Marcos, with wife Gliceria Abreu on Afro-Cuban percussion and also serving as executive producer for a couple of the Allstars Grammy nominated records, eldest daughter Gliceria Gonzales on keys and vocals, and daughter Laura Lydia Gonzalez on clarinet and sax.
A procession of trumpet players came to the front of the stage for the opener, “Addimu a Oshun,” with 3 soloists alternating on trumpet and flugelhorn as mellow as Mongo Santamaria and as sharp and cutting edge as Dizzy Gillespie.
Before the band played their popular cut “Amor Verdadadero,” from ’97’s A Toda Cuba Le Gusta, Pianist Gabriel Hernandez took a solo turn on an atonal composition that sounded like a herd of kittens galumphing across the keys.
Although Marcos asserts in interviews and onstage that the band is 100% Cuban and that they don’t play foreign music at all, he does acknowledge the music’s influences, most notably the African influence, which is presumably why the band is called The Afro- Cuban Allstars. While most of the music does have the syncopated lilt associated with Cuban Son and Salsa, it’s easy to hear the tribal African beats lurking just under the surface, rising to the forefront several times during the performance.
Sounding like a Cuban Tony Bennett, Evelio Galan climbed over the rail and jumped down into the audience for “Barbaridad,” working the crowd up close and personal while De Marcos and the two other lead singers, Emelio Suarez and Giliot Pinera, remained onstage doing choreography worthy of the Temptations.
Marcos exudes an avuncular charm, embracing a stagehand who came out onstage to fix a Conga problem, spinning him around to face the crowd and asking for a round of applause for his efforts before letting go.
Many in this multi-racial crowd knew the lyrics and sang along, swaying in their seats. “These are my people,” one enthusiastic celebrant told those seated beside him, a huge grin splitting his face.
Emelio Suarez shone on “Idilio,” crooning like a Spanish Justin Timberlake.
“Are there any Puerto Ricans here tonight?” Marcos asks, introducing “Dos Gardenias,” adding that Cuban and Puerto-Rican music come from different wings of the same bird. Galan and Marcos harmonized beautifully as the band nearly lifted them off the stage with their rhythmic punch. The duo were so pleased with their performance they exchange a soul handshake at the finale.
“Dundumbanza,” recorded by his acoustic band, Sierra Maestra, provided the impetus for the formation of the All Stars and the Buena Vista Social Club and is a crowd favorite, eliciting whoops of delight.
By the time the band breaks onto “Son De Baloy,” the seat swayers could no longer contain themselves. Leaping to their feat, arms waving high over their heads, the movement rippled through the auditorium till the whole crowd was standing and salsa-ing along.
Nobody bothered to sit down for the rest of the show. The music’s just too infectious, the sinuous grooves causing pelvises to wriggle rhythmically, sending shudders of delight through the upper torsos of the assembled multitude.
The singers have all left the stage by this point, out in the crowd dancing with audience members, egging them on with call and response chants of “day – oh,” scrambling back onstage to take their bows and file off.
A standing ovation brought them back for “Candela,” a track many recognize from the Buena Vista Social Club record. Its a hoo ha finish, a get down and roll around vehicle featuring a mix of African tribal drumming, Cuban swing and a whole lot of shimmy and shake from everybody including the audience. The All Stars leave the stage swinging towels over their heads like celebrants in a New Orleans second line parade channeling rhythms from a bit farther south, but with the same ability to move your feet, touch your heart and satisfy your salsified soul.