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Concert Report - Bamboleo - Oakland - 1999
BAMBOLEO AT YOSHI'S
I saw all four Bamboleo shows in Oakland over the weekend and am gearing up for the grand finale tonight in Santa Cruz at Palookaville. The four sets at Yoshi's were electrifying. The band was razor sharp, the new material was very strong, the visual impact of the front line was mind-boggling and the sound was sublime. In light of our recent lengthy rampages about the sorry state of live sound, I'll start with that. It was simply the best sound I have ever heard at a Latin concert. Yoshi's obscenely expensive Meyer PA proved to be worth every penny (easy for me to say, since I didn't pay for it!). Bamboleo plays loud...not as loud as Los Van Van or Cubanismo...but loud. The PA handled it with virtually no distortion and even after two consecutive shows I had no ringing in my ears. It was loud enough to maximize the emotional impact of the music but not loud enough to hurt! The guy doing the mixing was, I'm pretty sure, traveling with the band, and incredibly, every element in 13 piece sensory barrage was clearly audible...definitely not a common occurrence!
For the uninitiated, Bamboleo has 3 CD's, the most recent of which, Ya No Hace Falta, was released this week. There's massive turnover of personnel from CD to CD (only the leader and one singer remain from the first CD) but the sound and concept of the band is remarkably consistent, due to the dominant presence of musical director and keyboardist Lazaro Valdés. I have no doubt that if the whole band quit tomorrow, Lazaro could go back down to the conservatory, draw on the spectacular flow of young talent and put the whole thing back together in a few short months. Valdés (and perhaps the conguero) might be 30, but the rest of the bandmembers are either in their late teens or early to mid twenties. The set is so tightly arranged and choreographed that it seems like one continuous suite, with recurring trademark rhythmic and lyrical motives. About 90% of the time the two trumpets and two saxes are written in unisons and octaves. It's a startling effect when they do temporarily break out into harmony or counterpoint. These stark, virtuosic, almost symphonic hornlines are set against modal minor rock and jazz chord progressions and basslines. Out of this driving texture emerges a variety of well-crafted pop songs. While he wrote the title track of the new CD, (an incredible combination of traditional Cuban harmonies with soulful blues and gospel, featuring an instantly classic laid back harmonization at the beginning of the 2nd verse), Valdés is primarily an instrumental composer who relies on others to write the songs that he inserts into his orchestrated suites. The most significant of the many personnel changes are the departures of singer Haila Momprie and songwriter Leonel Limonta, to form the new band Azúcar Negra. Limonta, whose name I have never seen listed as a musician on any CD, wrote nearly every song on the second CD. He's also penned many of Charanga Habanera best songs (e.g. "Quitate el disfraz") and has written for Issac Delgado and others. Haila Momprie has been compared to a young Celia Cruz and has a very funky earthy voice, but her young replacement is also a stunning performer and singer. The thought "Haila Who?" crossed my mind many times as I surveyed the crowd. All eyes, male and female, were simply riveted on the overwhelming physical and sonic presence of the two female singers, whose shaved heads, intensely charismatic facial epressions, and rhythmically throbbing, sexually-charged body language just have to be seen to be believed. The new singer fit in perfectly, but great songwriters come at a higher premium than great performers in Cuba, so Limonta¹s departure is a tougher hole to fill, but on repeated listenings, the songwriting on the new CD is very strong. In addition to the killer title track, Manolin (El Medico de Salsa) and Girardo Piloto (of Klimax) contributed one tune each and ex-singer Rafael Lavarrera wrote the four excellent songs which conclude the CD. The CD, and the live set, start out with an updated version of Valdés' introductory suite concept, complete with the band's trademark coro "Camina pa' la pista que la pista no tiene espinas" ("get out onthe dance floor 'cause the dance floor doesn't have thorns!"). This was somewhat ironic since Yoshi's had filled the dance floor with tables! The band seemed a bit puzzled and amused to be playing in front of so many seated people. They'll no doubt feel much more at home at Palookaville, which is almost ALL dance floor. Santa Cruz can be accused of many things, but not getting down hard at Latin concerts is definitely not one of them! In any case, the powerhouse opening suite segues, by way of an incredibly difficult-to-perform ritardando to the title track of the 2nd CD, Limonta's "Yo no me parezco a nadie". After that, almost every song is from the new CD. There were minor variations from set to set, but the general flow was rehearsed and executed with frightening precision. Valdés arranges not only the individual pieces, but the set as a whole. Even the dancers' steps and pelvic thrusts, their jokes and band member introductions, are choreographed and performed in nearly identical fashion from set to set. None of the musicians was reading music and the band, the dancing, and the pacing of the performance displayed the kind of tightness that only incredibly talented, conservatory-trained musicians who are paid by the government to rehearse all day can achieve.
But beyond all of this detail, and beyond all of Bamboleo¹s quirks and unique strengths, the groove was the most significant thing happening. There¹s a deeply euphoric, physically addictive rush that I get every time I go hear any of these modern Cuban bands, whether it¹s Bamboleo, Los Van Van, El Médico, or Cubanismo. A number of people asked me why on earth I¹d want to go hear the same show 5 times in a 5 day span. My answer was "Because there were only 5 shows...if there were more, I would just keep going and going until my money ran out -- and then I'd sell my car".