The shallow geometric pond at California Plaza in Downtown Los Angeles was a cool, refreshing oasis on Friday evening. It’s surrounded by skyscrapers, not palm trees, and concrete covers its grounds, not sand. But on Friday it was lined by thousands of swaying people, blissfully removed from the cares of the world, the volatile hotspots of the day — Korea, Guam, Venezuela, a New Jersey golf resort, a violence-roiled Charlottesville — all…. somewhere else. Somewhere distant. Somewhere not, for the moment at least, of concern.
From the raised stage at the southeast side of the pond, with a dancing waters backdrop, came the breezy rhythms that inspired the audience’s undulations, created by the band El Septeto Santiaguero. From Cuba. Yes, Cuba, for the better part of the past six decades one of the globe’s volatile hotspots, at least from the perspective of the United States, to the point that many times the mere appearance of a Cuban band in the states has spurred protests and hot rhetoric.
None of that troubled the Plaza waters Friday as El Septeto (an eight-man septeto, but never mind) and the charming and dazzling a cappella quarteto Vocal Vidas (also hailing from the headliners’s hometown Santiago de Cuba) provided what will certainly stand as a highlight of the summer’s highlights-filled Grand Performances series of free shows at this locale. That says something about the distressing state of the world, but also about the progress regarding Cuba, not to overlook any continuing issues there. But the only explicit message, and the only English spoken from the stage during the performances other than a “thank you” or two, came when singer Giraldo “El Flaco” Bravo said, “Please stand up.” Those in the very diverse crowd who hadn’t already been standing, gladly accepted the invitation.
El Septeto’s brand of son is tied to the trova (troubadour) traditions running back in Santiaguero culture long before the Revolution, as far back as the 19th century, learned by these musicians from generations of mentors and reshaped and enlivened through the band’s own 22-year history. It’s a vibrant and vibrating sound built around the slinky sting of group founder Francisco Dewar’s tres, the guitar relative with three pairs of strings at the core of much Cuban music, with guitar, trumpet, bass, congas, bongos and other percussion and the personable vocals and presence of Inocencia “Chencho” Heredia and Bravo. It all wove together in shifting, intersecting patterns, the rhythms sparkling and persuasive. It’s perhaps a more rustic sound than that heard by so many via the Buena Vista All-Stars (whose global success did so much to bring Cuban music to new generations and, arguably, help pave the way for the new openness between Cuba and the U.S.). But then Santiago de Cuba is 500 miles east of, and one-fifth the size of, Havana.
That’s not to say it’s “old” music. El Septeto has brought new touches to the styles, delightfully so in such moments as the whistling-and-hoots break in “Hay Un Run Run…,” sounding like a Caribbean calliope and drawing cheering hoots in return from the fans. (See video below.) Of course, that song originated decades ago, and their version was the lead-off track on El Septeto’s 2014 two-CD set “No Quíero Llanto,” a tribute to the influential Santiago de Cuba band Los Compadres, the album winning the younger group a Latin Grammy Award. But nothing about the Friday performance felt the least-bit outdated.
Same for the four women of Vocal Vidas, who presented a perfect blend of sophistication and playfulness, impressive chops and engaging personality, a Santiaguero spin on the Swingles Singers’ sound, sorta, reworking son rather than Bach into weavings of jazzy counterpoint. Both of the night’s acts seem poised to become favorites on more U.S. stages, but the setting here couldn’t have been better. Nor could have the timing, taking us away from all that, at least for a few hours.