Monday 29 March 2010

Sierra Maestra

Band On The Wall, Friday 26 March 

Ah, the life-affirming power of that rolling, syncopated song-style born in the countryside of eastern Cuba we know as son. Sierra Maestra have purveyed high quality son since 1976, when the founder-members came together at Havana University - the engineering faculty, rather than the music faculty.    

Indeed, the assorted claves, maracas, cowbells, guiros, congas and bongos of Sierra Maestra fit together like the component parts of a well-oiled machine. It gives a rhythmic lift to sweet pastoralism, so that the listener is simultaneously charmed by guitar and the massed voices of the primero and segued singers, or excited by ferocious percussion work-outs, invariably led by Eduardo Rico on congas. It is music made for dancing, and after a hesitant reception, the Band on the Wall dancefloor was heaving by the third song, A ulna muter. 

Tuneful, essentially happy, with no dark cloud to blot the Cuban sunshine, Sierra Maestra offer timeless, unchanging beauty. This listener was transfixed by Emilio Ramos on tres guitar, who showed rhythmic sureness in his ensemble work and then went to outrageous harmonic extremes in his solos. The latest arrival to the group is trumpeter Yelfris Valdes, following in the steps of Jesus Alemany, and, with his stratospheric flights, the most outwardly raucous of the players. Though singer and guitarist Jesus Bello was unrestrained and jovial, and his high spirits were infectious. By contrast, old-timers Luis Barzaga and Virgilio Valdes, swapping vocals and sundry items of percussion, represented some of the gentler aspects of the Cuban legacy: graceful, elegant, dignified. Bassist Eduardo Himely contributed understated, subtle, resolutely good-time timekeeping.   

Of course, the ultimate stumbling block of music played by Latins for a non-Latin audience, is the natives inability to dance. I wonder if this has changed too. Near neighbours - I was in the frontline next to the stage - distinguished themselves by clapping to the complex rhythms in perfect time, then during the climatic number, "A ti, no te sale", the dancefloor hosted a mass eruption of the conga. It seems that the spadework put in by Manchester School of Samba and the Salsa Dance department of Instituto Cervantes has finally paid off. A rapturous evening, worthy of the best Havana salon. 

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