Thursday night's Americanos Concert at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall was a well-intentioned effort to celebrate the diversity of Latino culture and the "Spanish tinge" that has so enriched American music. But what easily could have warranted a yearlong festival was compressed into a two-hour concert that will be further condensed into a 90-minute television special to be shown on PBS in September. And while there were some crucial figures involved--mambo king Israel Lopez "Cachao," merengue sensation Juan Luis Guerra, pop star Gloria Estefan--none of the artists was really afforded enough time to make the best impression.
Admittedly, there's no way any single program could embrace the range and vitality of Latin music, but where were such dominant styles as salsa, tango, cumbia and Tejano?
Estefan did three numbers--the impassioned "Mi Tierra," which celebrated the singer's connection to classic Cuban music, the aching ballad "Con los Anos" and "Sabor a Mi," a stately duet with singer-guitarist Jose Feliciano. But the last number in particular pointed up one of the evening's drawbacks: The Americanos Concert Orchestra simply overwhelmed Estefan and Feliciano in an elegant song better served by a simpler setting. The orchestra also lent an unfortunate homogeneity to Guerra's sinewy, sensual recitation of his biggest hit, "Ojala Que Llueva Cafe." It was the first song to really activate the audience, which jumped in on the chorus with a fervor seldom seen in the Concert Hall.
The evening's most exposed act was the purely percussive Escovedo family trio, consisting of Sheila E, her father Pete Escovedo and brother Juan Escovedo on a variety of timbales and congas. Not only did they layer on insistent rhythms to a number of performances, they also provided transition music between acts, a challenge generally well met but somewhat repetitive after a while. (Sheila E did manage to engage the crowd in some spirited call-and-response during one break.)
Cachao, the 81-year-old Cuban legend who helped define mambo in the late '30s, proved a tremendously engaging figure leading a small group through the rhythmically varied "Africa Viva" (with a middle section of "Over the Rainbow" that underscored how culturally "inside the rainbow" Latin music has always been). He returned at show's end for "Descarga Cachao," a fractious mambo jam session that really took off with the squealing clarinet of Paquito D'Rivera and Cachao's own impish frivolity on bass, which he bowed, plucked and cajoled in consistently inventive ways.
D'Rivera also did a spectacular turn on the exhilaratingly spry samba "Tico Tico," switching to alto on the impassioned ballad "To Brenda With Love." Most disappointing: Afro-Peruvian singer Susana Baca, who seemed to have trouble hearing herself and never truly connected on her medley of "Toto Mata/Zamba Malto."
The folkloric traditions of Mexico were well represented by California's Conjunto Hueyapan, reclaiming the folk song "La Bamba," and the mariachi band Los Camperos de Nati Cano, whose "Huapango" moved through a multitude of stately moods and shifting rhythms.
Actor and concert mastermind Edward James Olmos provided the narrative bridge--but was clearly playing to the upcoming television audience, not the one that filled the Concert Hall. His words seemed somewhat flowery--when they could be heard at all--and Olmos kept popping up in different parts of the hall for each segue--in the orchestra here, on one balcony there, the opposite balcony next and so on. The fans ended up twisting their necks trying to locate Olmos--a strange variation on Where's Waldo?
Several performances were presented "offstage," as it were: Conjunto Hueyapan delivered its song from the balcony--an intriguing variation on the serenade! This will hopefully produce terrific television, but that and the quick, constant setups made for a perpetually interrupted flow that undermined the power of the music being celebrated.
CAPTION: Gloria Estefan and Jose Feliciano were among the performers saluting Latino music at the Kennedy Center on Thursday.
CAPTION: Pop star Gloria Estefan and Jose Feliciano perform "Sabor a Mi" at the Americanos Concert.