What could bring Puff Daddy and Alanis Morissette to the same venue? Try a night at the Art Deco Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles for a concert featuring pianist Ruben Gonzalez and singer Ibrahim Ferrer of the now legendary Buena Vista Social Club. Sponsored by The Conga Room, Puffy’s chica loca, Jennifer Lopez, and Jimmy Smits (co-owners of the club) were there to support the event.
This was a night of effusive joy for Gonzalez and Ferrer brought the house down from the moment they walked onstage. Ruben Gonzalez opened accompanied by a nine piece band that included bassist maestro Cachaito Lopez. They were able to keep up with his nimble fingers on perennial traditional favorites like "Toma Chocolate" and "Mi Guajira", while he allowed a moving solo trumpet of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". The regal Omara Portuondo, introduced as "La chica mas sexy de Cuba" appeared for several songs. My only regret was not being able to hear him play any solo pieces for any length of time, a selfish complaint given the sheer dexterity of his bandmates.
When Ibrahim Ferrer entered, the crowd was mesmerized. Every inch the flirtatious tomcat, Ferrer performed with energetic exhiliration, drawing in even more from the ecstatic crowd. Alternating popular favorites "Como Fue" and "Aquellos Ojos Verdes" with spirited all out jam sessions with his expanded 17 piece band on "Candela"and "Cienfuegos Tiene Su Guaguanco", Ferrer danced, romanced and proved why he was born a showman.
Omara Portuondo joined him on several occasions, notably on the sad, heartfelt "Silencio" that hushed the room. They dedicated "Mami Me Gusto" to Jennifer Lopez, who graciously sent a kiss before exiting early with Puffy. Portuondo and Ferrer make a powerful duo on stage, and their chemistry is undeniable. With a youthful sensuality, her coquetishness and his scruffiness, they possess both the voice and drama to make their presence infectious.
Though Ferrer may be the star of the show, his generosity extends to those all around him. He truly enjoys performing and and so does the band. His crushed velvety voice is tempered by their rousing arrangements. Their movements are gentlemanlike while Ferrer can clown around as well as be unabashedly tender. By complementing each other they communicate their passion to the audience in the most moving of ways. It looks like Ferrer and company could do this for another 25 years and not tire.
A special appearance was made by American Ry Cooder, who accompanied Ferrer’s set on guitar. Cooder must be happily amused that a project to go down and record some Cuban sounds has grown into all of this. A successful album and documentary by Wim Wenders has been almost eclipsed by several successful solo careers. The thirst for all sounds Cuban has barely been satiated, and Cooder’s hand in bringing together a handful of musicians has fanned the flame.
Only Eliades Ochoa and Compay Segundo were missing from the grand finale when Gonzalez joined Ferrer onstage for the fiery "El Cuarto de Tula" (They, of course, are touring separately). It would have been too surreal if they had performed "Chan Chan", so they didn’t. They ended on the high note, just like they started.
You really got the feeling that they were as happy to see us as we were to see them. If this night was any indication, Cuban-American relations are getting better and better, song by song. After all, could they get any worse?