By Wednesday night's end, Lisner Auditorium had transformed into the Lisner Ballroom, and Wim Wenders's "Buena Vista Social Club" had come to life onstage thanks to three of that great film's charismatic stars--80-year-old pianist Ruben Gonzalez, 72-year-old singer Ibrahim Ferrer and the stately vocalist Omara Portuondo. Wenders's documentary--which is still playing at the Janus--celebrates classic Cuban music that regained worldwide attention and acclaim when guitarist-producer Ry Cooder went to Havana a few years ago and discovered a host of veteran musicians who'd fallen into undeserved obscurity.
The resulting album became an international hit, inspired Wenders's film and, just this year, led to the first solo recordings by Gonzalez and Ferrer, whose careers stretch back to the '40s. So endearing were the film's personalities--and so enduring is the traditional Cuban music they perform--that the Lisner show sold out without advertising (a Feb. 7 concert at Constitution Hall just went on sale). And when Gonzalez was led to the piano by trumpeter Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal, another "BVSC" star, it provoked the first of the evening's many standing ovations.
Gonzalez began with a florid solo bolero, "Como Siento Yo," before brightening the pulse with the lively dance rhythms of "Siboney," the elegantly paced "Isora" and a bubbly "Bodeguero." This was followed by the first appearance of the majestic Portuondo, who did nothing to dispel her reputation as the Cuban Edith Piaf on such magnificent, melodramatic ballads as "La Vida Es un Sueno" and "Veinte Anos," and riveting up-tempo numbers "Quizas Quizas," "Negra Tomasa" and "Chanchullo." The wonderful discovery here was group leader and trombonist Jesus "Aguaje" Lopez, whose solo showcase, "Trombon" (with a melancholy sidestep into "Over the Rainbow"), was a lyrically elegant crowd-pleaser.
Ferrer also got a standing ovation when he ambled out onto the stage, stylish and dapper in his Kangol hat, exuding a wonderfully dignified presence. He was backed by the 14-piece Orquesta Ibrahim Ferrer--which included an unannounced and for the most part quietly integrated Ry Cooder on guitar--and while there were several lively sons, the highlights of Ferrer's set were the stately boleros that so beautifully showcased his storytelling skills, as well as his gorgeously clear-toned vocals and immaculate phrasing.
The grand boleros included "Herido de Sombras," "Aquellos Ojos Verdes" and "Nuestra Ultima Cita," popularized in the '60s by the legendary Los Zafiros, and graced here with elegant electric fills by that group's guitarist, Manuel Galvan (deservedly known as the Duane Eddy of Cuba). Another beautiful bolero featured in Wenders's film, "Dos Gardenias," would be Ferrer's first encore.
The band kicked into high gear on a pair of sons associated with '50s star Arsenio Rodriguez, the irresistibly swaying "Bruca Manigua" and "Mami Me Gusto," along with "Marieta" and "Cienfuegos Tiene Su Guaguanco," with Ferrer joined on the last by Portuondo. However, their grand moment came on the romantic duet "Silencio," another highlight from Wenders's film and even more riveting on the warmly lit Lisner stage. Built on a haunting guitar vamp from Galvan, the song makes palpable the melancholy of broken hearts, taking physical form when Ferrer and Portuondo embraced and danced ever so slowly, lost in love's reverie as Galvan's guitar spun off trebly tears.
And just when it seemed things couldn't get any better, they did: Orquesta Ibrahim Ferrer launched into its closing numbers--the riotously rhythmic sons "Que Bueno Baila Usted," "Suena El Piano" and "Candela"--and the aisles filled with dancers, transforming Lisner into a humid Havana ballroom in an indeterminate time when music was stronger than politics.
CAPTION: Oldies and very goodies: pianist Ruben Gonzalez, above, and singer Ibrahim Ferrer.