Review: Havana Maestros Bring Americuba to NeueHouse

Havana Maestros in concert at NeueHouse Los Angeles (Jacqueline Verdugo)

Havana Maestros in concert at NeueHouse Los Angeles (Jacqueline Verdugo)

One of the great musical groups to come out of Cuba in the past 50 years was the Buena Vista Social Club (BVSC), which was made up of mostly veteran musicians who made their mark in pre-Castro Cuba. This ensemble re-introduced the ageless, traditional, popular Cuban music from the ‘30s, ’40s and ’50s to a younger, more diverse audience and became a worldwide phenomenon. Many of the original members of BVSC have passed with only a handful still performing either solo or with different musical projects.

On Sunday, May 7tat the performance venue of the private, avant-garde communal office space of NeueHouse, located at the historic CBS broadcasting facility in Hollywood, a new music project called Havana Maestros made its West Coast debut with their recording titled Americuba.

Featuring one of the original members of the BVSC, Cuban laud master Barbarito Torres, the recording is arranged by pianist virtuoso Emilio Vega and Harold López-Nussa, with Amadito Valdés (timbales), Roberto García (trumpet) and other stellar Cuban musicians, many of whom played with the BVSC.

Americuba” is the brainchild of sibling producers Frank and Christian Berman, who in 2008 put out a similar concept called Rhythms del Mundo as a fundraiser for the environmental nonprofit organization Artists Project Earth. As in that previous project, this one takes popular, mostly American hits and fuses them with traditional Cuban arrangements while layering the original vocals with the new production’s sounds.

To put the evening’s theme into a Cuban context, a beautiful vintage Cadillac convertible from the 1950s was poised just to the side of the stage at the hip performance space centrally located in the NeueHouse complex.

The evening’s performance by the talented group began with several traditional Cuban pieces that warmed up the mostly young, eclectic crowd to what was to be the heart of the presentation. By intermittently placing songs from the new recording between the classic Cuban ones, the evening made its point that this is not your typical salsa concert.

One of the most interesting and artistic parts of the presentation was the projection of official videos (only “Stand by Me” is online so far) to accompany the featured songs from the recording on a large screen above the band. The first, and one of the most effective of these, was Missy Elliot’s hit “Get Ur Freak On” which featured clips of the original video edited with images and videos of today’s Cuba. This format was also followed in Chic’s “Good Times,” Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” and my personal favorite, Janelle Monáe’s “Tightrope,” which just blew my mind as far as an overall artistic expression of the concept.

Unlike the usual concert format, this project relies not just on live music but how it coordinates the original vocals over the musicians in order to present the concept as on record. This dilemma was overcome not just by the professionalism and talent of the band, but by the outstanding editing job on the videos and the visionary approach of the Berman brothers.

Humberto Capiro is a Contributing Writer for Living Out Loud - LA, covering lifestyle and entertainment. Follow him on Twitter: @HumbertoCapiro

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