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On Tour 2005

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Azúcar Negra in Stockholm 2005-08-20

First I would like to thank bandleader Leonel Limonta and manager Myriam Portocarero for making it possible for me to join the band during their 2 month European Tour. It was quite an experience to go behind the scenes and see what happens when the lights go down, the fans go home and the band returns to the minivans for the long drive to the next city. Ah, the glamour!

I was not able to spend the entire 2 months with the band, but I did manage to attend all the concerts except for three, all of which were in Holland as it turns out. So how to sumarize 8 weeks? Rather than reporting on each concert I will talk about the highlights of the tour and also write a few shorter articles about other aspects such as travel, free time and the new repertoire.

The Concerts

The band was supposed to leave Cuba on July 9th and arrive on the 10th, but Hurricane Dennis hit Cuba on July 8th, and for a couple of days we didn't know when the band would be able to depart. Fortunately they were only delayed by 1 day and made it in plenty of time for the first concert which took place on July 13 at Traenen Palast in Berlin, Germany.

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Azúcar Negra in Berlin

As an indication of what was to come during the tour, the band performed a large number of the new songs that will be released on the next CD towards the end of this year. They replaced Andar Andando as the opening song with Toque Natural, a celebration of Cuban pride. Click here for the lyrics. Throughout the tour Biunaikis also sang El Dun Dun, which even has it's own little dance.

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Biunaikis started the concert with Toque Natural

Aylin's new song during the tour was Lo Prometido Es Deuda. When they peform this song in concert, Limonta introduces it as salsa rather than timba, because it has a very romantic cuerpo. The lyrics are beautiful, but Azúcar Negra is Azúcar Negra and when the cuerpo ends, the timba begins. Timberos won't feel like this is just a "regular salsa". And Ailyn sings it beautifully with genuine emotion.

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Ailyn sings Lo Prometido Es Deuda

The new songs in Jorge Luis' repertoire are Mal Tiempo Buena Cara and Me Siento Bien. I heard him sing Me Siento Bien in Cuba, but during the tour it was Mal Tiempo Buena Cara he sang. For those who don't know, this is a Cuban expression that is basically used to say that when the weather is bad put on a good face anyway because sooner or later the weather will be good again. I'm sure everyone understands how this applies to life in general.

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Arregoitía in Berlin

El Nene was also singing 2 new songs on tour: Somos dos, which those of us who have been in Cuba in the past year have already heard, and El picaron. El picaron is a funny song about someone who is always bumming cigarettes, beer and money off of people, I guess we'd call it The Mooch in English.

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Si pide un dolar - ¡No tengo!

In addition to enjoying all the new songs, the strongest memory I have from that first concert was the Elvis Presley exhibition at Traenen Palast. They had all kind sof newspaper clippings, LPs, pictures and even several of his costumes, which inspired me to take the following picture of the ladies of Azúcar Negra with Elvis, kind of an interesting juxtaposition.

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Ailyn, Elvis and Biunaikis

The next concert was at Festival Latino Roc in Cauteret, France in the Pyrenees on the border with Spain. To get there we drove for about 19 hours in the minivans in the summer heat. It was a tiring trip, but the town is located in such a  picturesque place and the audience was so enthusiastic that the trip was well worth it.

One thing that becaeme clear to me is that the audience is an important part of the show. The audience gives their own energy to the show. The band inspires the audience who respond with energy, in turn inspiring the band, and this can make the difference between a good show and a great show. The show at Cauterets was a great show. You couldn't have asked for a better audience.

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The stage in Cauteret located in a valley in the Pyranees

When the concert began I was a little concerned about how the audience would react. It wasn't going to be your standard salsa club audience where everyone knows all the songs. And I also wondered how many poeple in the audience would be able to speak Spanish and appreciate the lyrics.

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El Nene singing El Picaron

But my fears we unfounded. I still don't know how many people understood what they were singing, but from the opening tumbao of Toque Natural the audience was captured and the danced throughout the concert shouting for an encore at the end. I don't speak French, but I could hear people saying things like "exceptionnel", which I could get the meaning of. Click here to see a video clip of El Dun Dun at Cauterets.

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Music is the universal language and the audience danced all night

The Polé Polé Festival is held each year in Gent, Belgium and boasts undoubtedly the coolest stage I've seen thus far. It is built over the river with the audience set up on either side of the river and occasional boats floating under the stage.

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The view from center stage at Polé Polé

After setting up the instruments, the guys had a few hours to wait while another band performed, so they relaxed backstage and spent some time checking out all of the merchandise and food being sold in the little tents lining either side of the river.

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Richard, Ailyn and Maikel relaxing backstage before the concert

One of the fun things for me was that I was actually useful at this concert. During the line check I translated for the band to help the Belgian sound engineers get the monitors set up the way the band wanted. At one point someone even came to me and said "Keep your bandmembers here now, because we'll be starting soon!"  Ah...my bandmembers...but no, I have no band of my own...yet.

And then the concert began, and the combination of the music and the city lights really gave this concert a magical feeling.

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Polé Polé by night

Another concert that stuck with me was at the Conga Club in London, England. The concert took place on Friday the 22nd, only about a week after the subway bombings and one day after more bombings had been thwarted by athorities. For most of the band it was their first time in London, and they were very impressed by the atmosphere of the city and how the streets were crowded with people at night, much like the streets of Havana. The people of London refused to let themselves be intimidated by the terrorists and they didn't stay home; they were out enjoying the wide selection of Friday night activities available in the city, including the Azúcar Negra concert. In recognition of what the city had faced, Limonta chose to re-insert Andar Andando in the repertoire that night (click here for lyrics) as a call for peace.

July 22 Leonel Limonta also celebrated his birthday, and before the concert, the band and the organizers took a moment to celebrate with a drink and the birthday song.

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Limonta celebrates his birthday at the Conga Club

And I just have to say something about the DJ at the Conga Club: he was a timbero's dream! He played nothing but timba all night and it wasn't just a selection of the timba top ten. His play list included classic timba, modern timba and even lesser known, but excellent, timba hits by groups such as Colé Colé. I don't know how often he plays, but you shouldn't miss him if he is playing when you are in London.

Other highlights for the tours were the concerts at Polé Polé Beach in Belgium and at Fiesta in Rome. I had kind of been planning for a nice, hot day where a stage located on the beach would be perfect, but as it turns out, the weather was really cold and rainy that evening.

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Carlos, Richard, Dunier, Palomino and Yoel waiting to start the show

The band that played before Azúcar Negra was Chic and, in addition to a number of other gerat musicians, included drummer Omar Hakim, who just happens to be conguero Gilberto's favorite drummer. The band took a moment to greet him as they were setting up the stage for Azúcar Negra between sets.

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Limonta, Gilberto, Omar and Maikel

Just as the soundcheck for Azúcar Negra began, so did the rain. It was about 01:30, cold and raining and the audience was completely exposed to the sky. But to their credit the most of the Belgians proved hardy enough to face the weather for the concert. The band really put in that little extra to make it well worth the audiences' effort.

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Azúcar Negra in action at Polé Polé Beach

The last song of the concert was 3 de Azúcar y 2 de Café. During this song Omar came on stage and took over the drums, playing a solo and adapting effortlessly to playing with a timba band.

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Omar on drums, Maikel on timbal

The only nervous moment was at the end of the song when there are two breaks where all the instruments fall silent for one beat. What would happen? Omar obviously doesn't have any idea what's coming! Well, Maikel had a perfect solution. He simply hugged Omar at the appropriate moment so that he couldn't use his arms. It worked perfectly.

The next concert on the schedule was at Fiesta in Rome and for any timbero this was another highlight of the tour. However, when we arrived at the airport and Limonta turned on his cell phone, we found out that Ibrahím Ferrer had passed away. It was a sad way to begin the day.

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Azúcar Negra in Rome

One of the great things about the festivals in Italy is the sheer number of artists they bring in. On the night that Azúcar Negra played, the bands of Adalberto Álvarez y Su Son, Pupy y Los Que Son Son and Manolín were in town as was David Calzado. It was like a big party, well I guess with a name like Fiesta what should you expect?

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David Calzado and Leonel Limonta in Rome

This night Limonta did somethig different to start the show: he had them start with the coro to Yo No Me Parezco before segueing into Toque Natural. This was a great way to capture the audience, as they immediately recognized this famous tumbao. The band performed many of the new songs again, and I was surprised that the Italian men seemed so shy about dancing on stage when Biunaikis invited them up during El Dun Dun.

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Two brave men learn to dance El Dun Dun in Rome

At the end of the show Limonta invited the other musicians to come out and play with the band. Yoelito from Adalberto Álvarez took over congas, René from Pupy took over timbales and Alexander Abreu borrowed Dunier's trumpet and played a solo.

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Alexander played a short solo for the audience

Jannier, from Pupy, and Manolín both came out and sang coros. Jannier took the coro from La Bala de Billy while Manolín demonstrated his talent for coros by coming up with two new ones for the occasion.

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Jannier - "Boom boom boom te maté"

It was an emotional moment when Manolín had the opportunity to play again with many his friends from Cuba. Unfortunately, after the show I didn't manage to make it backstage before Manolín left, so I couldn't get an interview.

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Manolín singing with Azúcar Negra

Click here for a video clip of Jannier, Alexander and Manolín with Azúcar Negra. After the show many of the musicians took the opportunity to catch up on the latest with their friends before they all headed off to their next gigs in various cities around Europe.

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Some of the musicians hanging out after the show

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Biunaikis Copenhagen 2005-08-18

I left off after the Rome concert. Unfortunately through some twist of fate and work assignments I missed all of the concerts in Holland, which took place after Rome. So I resume my report with the Scandinavian leg of the tour.

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Ailyn in Denmark

I met up with the band again in Copenhagen where they played at Club Mambo, a small venue with a small stage, but somehow they made it work. In fact this is where I met the band for the first time last year as they celebrated their 7 year anniversary. As always in Copehagen, the crowd was enthusiastic and the band even managed to make room on the stage for some despeloteras.

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A stage you could call 'intimate'

Having missed the Holland concerts, this was the first time that I got the see the new medley that Limonta put together in honor of Ibrahím Ferrer. It consists of the classics Silencio, a duet between Ailyn and Arregoitía; Dos Gardenias, sung by Arregoitía; and Candela, sung by El Nene. Saxophonist José Ángel Palomino was given the job of working out the arrangements. I thought it was very nicely done and especially enjoyed Candela, of course, since it is great to dance to. According to Limonta, we can expect to find this tribute to Ferrer on the upcoming CD.

Denmark was followed by Azúcar Negra's first ever concert in Finland, and what a concert it was! Nobody knew quite what to expect. I know there is a core group of timberos in Finland, but I wasn't sure how many people would turn up for the concert. But let me tell you, those Finns know good music when they hear it.

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Azúcar Negra in Tampere

The concert was held in Tampere, which is a bit of a drive from Helsinki, but that didn't stop 50 hardcore timba fans from renting a bus to make it to the concert. The venue was packed with hundreds of enthusiastic dancers. And this night was a perfect example of how the interaction bewteen the band and the audience can really take a performance to new heights.

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Ailyn and Limonta despelotando

The energy of the performers was fantastic and the crowd answered back with just as much enthusiasm. Just look at the smile on Maikel's face to see how good the entire band was feeling that night.

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Maikel tocando y gozando

Did I say the whole band was feeling good? Well here's something I bet no one in Finland knew, El Nene was actually sick that night. But when he got up on stage you couldn't tell. He gave a powerful performance, as always, with a lot of funny improvisation.

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El Nene telling Tampere about El Picaron

My pictures form that night don't do it justice, but fortunately there was a much better photographer there, Janne Hämäläinen, and he offered to let me use some of his photos for the report. But there were just too many good ones for me to only pick a few, so instead I made a little gallery. Click here for more pictures of the Tampere concert, that will help you share the feeling of that night.

The hard part about the Scandinavian tour was getting the band from Tampere to Stockholm for the concert the following day. There wasn't room for everyone on the same plane, so the majority of the bandmembers had to take a 6.00 am flight, while a few lucky people, myself included, were on the 9:00 am flight. Keep in mind that the concert didn't really end until around 3:00 am, and the band had to go through the whole check-in procedure. So everyone pretty much stayed awake all night and then slept at the hotel when they arrived in Stockholm. Fortunately they had all day to sleep, so they were rested and ready for the concert that night.

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Azúcar Negra - rested and ready

Stockholm is my "hometown" so it was especially fun for me to be with the band at this concert. The enegry in Stockholm was right up there with the Tampere concert. Again the audience was really enjoying the concert and everyone was dancing, whether they knew how to dance salsa or not. It was really intersting to see that the audience was full of Swedes thta night and not made up of just the regular "salsa crowd".

Before the concert, the venue made it clear that the band had to strictly follow the schedule. So, although the audience was having a great time and didn't want to say goodbye, Azúcar Negra finished the concert on time and went back stage. But the audience would not stop yelling for more, so the promoters actually had to come back stage and ask the band to come out and do an encore. Now that's real appreciation!

Everyone in Europe knows that 2005 was a particularly cool and rainy summer. So it came as a relief for everyone to go to the French surfing paradise Hossegor for a weekend. Just take a look at the view from the hotel room!

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Now that's what I'm talkin' about!

But it wasn't all play. The band had to set up and do the sound check before they could go out and enjoy the beach. Personally I was happy to be able to actually wear a short skirt for a day.

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Sound check at Hossegor

Now I know you probably think that the band would be out on the beach soaking up the sun and playing in the surf after having spent almost 2 months in cold weather. There was some idle talk about renting a sailboat, but no. What did the band do in their free time? Well I'm going to reveal their secret...

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They played Nintendo!

The first concert night was beautiful with warm breezes off the ocean and another enthusiastic festival audience.

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Azúcar Negra in action

The second day in Hossegor started off as warm as the first, but by late afternoon the wind off the ocean suddenly turned cold and by the evening I was wishing I had brought some long pants and a sweater because it was downright cold. Fortunately the crowd was big enough that the body heat was enough to keep you warm, and of course, the dancing. Even the light rain that began falling, quite approriately during Mal tiempo buena cara, didn't slow down the audience.

And that's about it for my story. There was another long drive in the mini-vans and the following weekend saw the final two concerts, Belgium and Holland, which I missed again. And on September 10 the band returned to Cuba to get started on the new CD. The CD is being mixed even as I write and should be released in Cuba in February 2006. Thanks again to everyone in the band for sharing their time and their minivans with me.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011, 03:31 AM