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Concert Review: Omara Portuondo and Barbarito Torres of the Buena Vista Social Club

By Mark Towns
Published: September 20 2000, JazzHouston

Although singer Omara Portuondo and lute player Barbarito Torres were both featured together on the wildly successful Buena Vista Social Club CD (and in the accompanying movie), on this night, each performed with their own separate band.

Barbarito’s group hit the stage first and came out burning. The band, consisting of two guitarists (one classical and one of the eight string variety), acoustic bass, trumpet, guiro, clave, and Torres on the lute, was powered not by the usual three Latin percussionists (timbale, congas, and bongo), but by one guy playing all three at once! The bassist, (female) clave and guiro players, and one of the guitarists each took turns singing in the traditional Cuban son, danzon, and guajira styles. The band also played a couple of instrumentals with extended solos by Torres which showcased his phenomenal virtuosity. Although done in a Latin style, his solos are at the high level improvisation usually associated with the heaviest of jazz heavyweights.

These great solos were received with nice applause, but when he played behind his back (a la Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, et al) the audience really ate it up. But the biggest audience response during Torres’ set went to his trumpet player during the band’s introduction when he came up front and demonstrated some hot mambo dance moves.

After an intermission, Omara Portuondo, at 70 years of age, came out kicking her legs up in the air and running around the stage like a young rock star. Her large band (two trombones, two trumpets, three saxes, piano, acoustic bass, and a guitar / tres player) were slick, sophisticated, and hot as Omara poured her heart out singing traditional Cuban cha cha cha’s, mambos, and (mostly) boleros. Omara sings with an emotional, passionate style that is all real. Nothing fake or pretentious here. Her voice is so powerful, it could have filled Jones Hall even without a microphone.

Although her set was graciously received, once again, the biggest response of the night went to one of her side men. The tres player (the tres is a type of Cuban guitar) at one point played over his head and behind his back to big applause. But when he did this and started shaking his butt too, the whole place erupted in big whoops and hollers. You gotta wonder what some of these people are going to these concerts for...

Overall, it was a great show and a great chance to hear some real Latin music. Keep an eye out for other Society of Performing Arts events by checking out their web site at

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