Jazz Plaza 2020: Ancient to the Future

Ernán López-Nussa at Teatro Nacional
Ernán López-Nussa at Teatro Nacional

Ernán López-Nussa hops from piano to vibraphone with equal facility. On his concert at Teatro Nacional he played the later instrument for an entire concert entitled “Havana in the Grand Manner”, directing his group with a wicked humour, waving his mallets about as his diaphanous creations draped around the rest of his ensemble – and the audience – with music conceived in one dynamic moment to the next. Through it all he seemed to be puréeing the sublime gestures of the music of Cuba into his own voice redolent of glorious melodies with new harmonic hooks that ticked along with the motor rhythms that have made Cuban music at once old and new. The best example of this provocative collision between tradition and futurism came – most ironically during a concert that was ring down the curtain on Jazz Plaza 2020. This was a programme led by Roberto Fonseca featuring the 90 year-old Omara Portuondo, saxophonist Dave Liebman, and with saxophonist Samy Thiébault, multi-horn player and vocalist Andréa Motis, Buena Fé, Cimafunk, Yomil y el Danny and others.

“Omara Portuondo’s version to close Jazz Plaza 2020 was one for the record books. The melody – poked and prodded harmonically and rhythmically by Roberto Fonseca and his musicians”

Roberto Fonseca and Omara Portuondo at Teatro Nacional
Roberto Fonseca, Omara Portuondo at Teatro Nacional – Havana, Cuba – Photo credit: Danilo Navas, Raul Da Gama

If you thought that this festival was going to end quietly and gracefully, you were in for a surprise. The atmosphere was charged – as happens whenever the Grand Dame of Cuban music, Omara Portuondo takes the stage. And she is completely aware of the impact that she has on audiences. What I saw, however, was a great artist who inhabits her music with beguiling and chameleonic intent. She arrived on the arm of Roberto Fonseca, who lavished her with attention. She played to the galleries and drank in the deafening applause. And then came the time when her presence on stage was coming to an end. Of course, she wasn’t going away without a fight, but she wasn’t going to go away without giving the audience what they wanted – and that was her rendition of “Chan-Chan”, the latest of probably thousands of versions that she’d sung over more decades than she would care to keep track of.

This one was different, though. Her version to close Jazz Plaza was one for the record books. The melody – poked and prodded harmonically and rhythmically by Roberto Fonseca and his musicians – was chiseled with unique beauty. Its rhythms were defiantly provocative – far from the pastiche of archetypal romantic models that she had so often performed with the Buena Vista Social Club. And just like the whole performance during the night, here too she actively threw overboard melodic, structural and harmonic hooks that often become blunted by overuse and built – with the grand Roberto Fonseca – a version of the song that was instinctively radical. It was as if she was singing a song beloved through the ages as well as singing a song that had become an anthem of Cuban music. Her dark skin had a celestial glow; her smile was radiant on her lips painted dark red. The audience responded with wild applause, to which she began to chant: “Cuba! Cuba! Cuba!” all the way from her green throne of a stage chair, until she disappeared into the shadows back-stage. “Cuba! Cuba! Cuba!”

Roberto Fonseca, Omara Portuondo at Teatro Nacional
Roberto Fonseca, Omara Portuondo at Teatro Nacional – Havana, Cuba – Photo credit: Danilo Navas, Raul Da Gama
Raul Da Gama
Raul Da Gama
Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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