Cuban legends to play at jazz fest

Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club will perform at Sing Jazz 2016 in March as part of the group's global farewell tour

Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club comprise (above from left) laud player Barbarito Torres, singer Omara Portuondo, trumpet player Manuel ‘Guajiro’ Mirabal and trombonist and conductor Jesus ‘Aguaje’ Ramos.
Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club comprise (above from left) laud player Barbarito Torres, singer Omara Portuondo, trumpet player Manuel ‘Guajiro’ Mirabal and trombonist and conductor Jesus ‘Aguaje’ Ramos. PHOTO: ALEJANDRO GONZALEZ

The set by Cuban music legends Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club at upcoming music festival Sing Jazz 2016 will probably be the last time fans here get to see them perform live.

The group are one of the prominent acts at the third edition of annual music festival Sing Jazz, or Singapore International Jazz Festival, which will take place at Marina Bay Sands from March 4 to 6.

The show is part of the group's global farewell tour.

One of the most senior members of the group, 82-year-old trumpet player Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal, says in an e-mail interview: "As you can imagine, it's a bittersweet feeling, as we have been travelling together for so many years. But this tour is the best way to celebrate our music and to thank the people for so many years of support and love."

Other acts that have been announced include veteran and upcoming bands, singers and musicians from various genres, including Grammy Award-winning British singer Joss Stone, acclaimed Australian quartet Hiatus Kaiyote and Singapore jazz maestro Jeremy Monteiro.

The pioneering Cuban group, which has had a rotating cast of musicians and singers over the years, went from relative obscurity to worldwide fame in 1997, the year the Buena Vista Social Club album was released.

They were brought together a year earlier, when Cuban bandleader and musician Juan de Marcos Gonzalez and American guitarist Ry Cooder assembled a loose collective of veteran Cuban musicians and named them after the Havana club that some of them had originally played in during the 1940s.

The critically acclaimed album became a surprise hit worldwide, eventually selling 12 million copies, a figure unparalleled for any Cuban music act.

Featuring the sounds of bolero, danzon, descarga, son cubano and other genres popular in Cuba in the 1940s and 1950s, it won a Grammy for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album in 1998.

The album spawned a documentary film of the same name. Helmed by German director Wim Wenders, it won awards at many film festivals worldwide and became a box-office hit.

The success of the album and the film sparked an interest in Cuban music worldwide and revived the music careers of many of the pioneering musicians involved.

The group has played in Singapore twice - in 2001, at the now-defunct World Trade Centre Harbour Pavilion; and in 2010, at music festival Timbre Rock & Roots at the Marina Promenade.

Several of the prominent musicians featured in the album and film are no longer alive, including singer Ibrahim Ferrer, who died at the age of 78 in 2005 and pianist Ruben Gonzalez, who died at the age of 84 in 2003.

Besides Mirabal, the touring line-up today also includes other original members, such as laud player Barbarito Torres, 59, singer Omara Portuondo, 85, and trombonist and conductor Jesus "Aguaje" Ramos, 64.

Of their longevity, Mirabal says: "For many of us, music is our way to understand life. When I'm touring, I miss my family, but playing is my life.

"I like to rehearse every day and the audience vibe is the best way to recharge energies and enjoy what you do."

The group now also include many younger musicians, including Mirabal's 20-year-old grandson, Luis.

"I'm proud of him and lucky to have him on tour with me. He is my family and a great support. The young generation in Cuba are very talented, musically speaking.

"They bring a lot of energy to the group and also a respectful way of understanding traditional popular music," says the elder Mirabal.

And while the collective might not be doing any more worldwide tours, that does not mean that Mirabal and his senior bandmates are hanging up their instruments for good.

"Music is my life. I'll keep playing. Some of the musicians from the Orquesta Buena Vista live close by in La Habana, so I guess we are going to meet to play music together."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2015, with the headline 'Cuban legends to play at jazz fest'. Print Edition | Subscribe