Buena Vista Social Club
March 2010. Life in Singapore was the usual round of sybaritic bar-hopping, jungle exploring and expeditioning to nearby tropical islands for spicy food or monkey-spotting. In a word, easy — but a tiny bit boring.
Down at the Crazy Elephant bar on Clarke Quay, the cover band was pumping out sweaty versions of Beatles standards for glazed looking punters. Bigger, more formal venues proudly boasted the likes of Kenny Gee and Trini Lopez. Not exactly coolsville. Something had to give.
Local music entrepreneur and guitarist Danny Loong sensed the mood. He contacted the likes of guitar legend Buddy Guy, the Grammy-winning Gypsy Kings, Jools Holland — and most astonishing of all, the multi-million-selling Buena Vista Social Club to play at his putative Rock and Roots Singapore Festival. And blow him down if they didn’t all accept! All to the same event. In the open air. In Singapore! With beer. And food. And cheap tickets. No dress code, even.
We nearly fell off our bar stools when we heard about the festival, and collectively rushed to book up. “Music is a gift we all have,” explained Danny. “What inspires me are the young people; we must always remember the time we fell in love with music.” The Rock and Roots Festival 2010 was coming and emotive music was on its way. We were ready to feel young and fall in love again.
I asked my flatmate Kerri if she wanted to go, and she said yes, even though she wasn’t a big fan of either blues or world music. No matter, Kerri was always up for a good night out. She is petite, has a wonderfully infectious smile and laugh, and attracted men like a well-oiled flypaper does flies. She would definitely be an asset in getting a good place to sit, and in meeting new friends …
The only issue was that Danny, in his quest to set up a gig to rival anything that had ever been organised before in Singapore, had a budget. So no seats, no aircon, no nuthin. Just a stage, a crowd barrier, and a big patch of Formula One track for the attendees to stand/groove/mingle/dance and drink beer on. Basic — but that’s the blues, right? It’s about the music, not plump cushions and velvet curtains.
We dressed suitably. T-shirts, shorts and pumps; stuff we could sweat profusely into on a typically sultry tropic night and not fret about understains. Soon after we got there, the Gypsy Kings came on, the cicadas trilled, the moon shone, the palm trees gently swayed, and the entire crowd went ga-ga. Dancing, singing, sweating, smiling, laughing and just letting go like nothing else had ever let go in Singapore before. It was a revelation: people were dancing with complete strangers, whirling and strutting like they were jousting with bulls in the Carmargue, shouting at the sky and playing air guitars along with the pony-tailed maestros on stage. Normally dance-averse Kerri got a bit funky, and even though by the fifth song we were a bit jaded with paella-inducing flamenco riffs, the verdict was unanimous: Best Night Ever. And there was more to come.
The eighty-year old Buddy Guy was next on. He strutted and showed off and flirted like a teen idol. The women in the audience flirted back, he made his guitar moan and howl, got the crowd to do the same and drove the night into blues overdrive. The tarmac was by this time vibrating, quite possibly with pleasure, at the syncopated foot-stomping and clapping from the hundreds of lucky people who had managed to bag a ticket. By this time, the beer tents were also into warp drive mode, with foaming slops surrounding all the marquees, and random shirtless dancers wringing out their sweat-soaked clothing onto the tarmac to add to the squelch factor.
It might sound like bacchanalian bedlam, but it was pure, high, infectious joy from end to end of the whole spectator enclosure. We doffed our dripping caps and beer mugs to Danny for his brilliant vision.
Kerri, Mallika and I were by this time a bit worn out: there’s only so much non-stop dervish dancing a girl/chap can do. We grabbed a roti prata or two, loitered at the back of the crowd and throbbed on the spot to the music. We were still soaking with sweat, but so, so happy. It was just one of those nights.
Eventually the ageing Buddy had to go for a sit down somewhere and there was a break in proceedings. Purposeful looking roadies started carting what looked like a small orchestra onto the stage. The Buena Vista Social Club was coming!
A group of the most elegantly-dressed old people you can ever imagine filed slowly on to the stage. Make no mistake; they really were old; the average age was about 75. Horn players, violinists, bass players, drummers, keyboardists and of course the wonderful voice herself — legendary singer Omara Portuondo — all took up their spots. Just stunning — and not at all sweaty; they were from Cuba, after all. They looked like a bunch of models off the cover of Vogue America, 1947, so timelessly stylish.
The only person who looked young (still stylish though) was Rolando Luna, the recent replacement for Ruben Gonzalez — the tiny, smiling pianist who, alongside Ry Cooder, had captured the ears of the world with his famous Buena Vista piano riff. Sadly Ruben had died (at 84) a couple of years earlier, and nobody else old enough could be found to match his keyboard skills. So young Rolando (only 30 or so) took his place.
When the band started playing it was like God had opened a trapdoor over Singapore and allowed some heaven dust to fall gently down and envelop the stage and audience. It was as though one hand — with a finger on every single instrument on stage — was playing directly from the heart of all music that has ever been, that has ever enchanted a listener. It was sublime, and Omara’s voice swung and caressed the humid, tropical night over our heads and out across the water. We breathed in pure ecstasy.
Some people in the audience were openly weeping. Not from clumsy-footed dancing from somebody’s hefty feet, but from the sheer beauty of the music; we were dancing slow and languid now, and the whole place was in the grip of utter, utter magic.
But human beings are animals, so during a set break, Kerri and I sneaked off to the toilet then to the beer tent to grab some more drinks.
There was a smartly dressed guy standing at the counter having difficulty ordering his beer — his English wasn’t that good. Kerri (petite, attractive, infectious smile and laugh remember) asked if she could help out. The guy turned and looked at her (she who attracted men like a well-oiled flypaper does flies, remember) and said yes. She helped him order his drink, then asked, “Have I seen you somewhere before?” He obviously looked familiar to her.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m with the Orquestra.” It was Rolando Luna, the pianist.
“OMG,” blurted Kerri “you are soooo cool.” Rolando nodded modestly and suggested that maybe we catch up with him after the next set finished, and maybe share another beer, maybe even go back to the Cuba Libre Club to hang out with him — and the rest of the Orquestra! Kerri rapidly agreed that was a very good idea, we danced and sweated in a trance for another twenty minutes, then saw Rolando coming towards us, smiling.
“We can go to the club in our car,” he said. A massive limo pulled up and we all tumbled in, sweaty, bursting with excitement, and about to spend time with some of the best known musicians on the planet. The Buena Vista Social Club were about to be our bar buddies.
The Cuba Libre Club, when we got there, was wall to wall with bronzed, lithe, and oh-so-gorgeous men and women all moving with sinuous Cuban elegance to the music wafting into the humid night air. Kerri moved off to a private corner to explain some important details about everyday life in Singapore to Rolando, we drank rum out of jam jars, danced more and were carried away on a tide of enveloping Cuban sensuality.
We will long remember the night we fell in love with the music. Thanks Danny.