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Overseas Report
The Afro-Cuban All Stars, Basingstoke, England  

The Afro-Cuban All Stars is an outfit of around fifteen musicians who play big band Cuban music–son, chachacha, danzon and mambo. The bandleader is Juan de Marcos Gonzales, who also plays with Sierra Maestra. He has ringlets, a big watch, a beret, a very loud flowery shirt and a bouncy, good-natured manner. He’s one of the younger members of the band, several of whom are in their seventies and were stars in pre-revolutionary Havana night clubs, where they played for the gangsters, whores, gamblers and dime-a-dance professional dancing partners.

In order to have some idea of the concert, you should know what Basingstoke is like. Basingstoke is a small town where low-level bureaucrats go to live when they retire. In Basingstoke tea shops grudging waitresses pour cups of weak tea and purse their lips if anyone speaks loudly. Already in Victorian times it was a byword for damp gentility: in one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas, whenever the heroine shows signs of coloratura emotion, the other characters say "Basingstoke" to calm her down. It was in Basingstoke, on a grey rainy Wednesday evening, that I went to hear the Afro-Cuban All Stars. It rains often, in Basingstoke.

This is not music that slams into you, like Jesús Alemañy’s  Cubanismo with its white-hot brass section; instead it has the relaxed intimacy of the slower Cuban dances. I took my seat next to a bank manager type who brought his briefcase to the concert. The band was playing a bolero. Musicians ambled about the stage adding a rhythm or delicate chord here and there whenever it seemed right. Amelito Valdez, the wiry percussionist, kept the beat languid. Ibrahim Ferrer was crooning Sinatra-style, his voice sweet as sugarcane. His tone has thinned over the years, and he was not helped by an atrocious sound balance, but he had all his heart-throb charisma intact. Every sensible Basingstoke matron in the audience wanted to put him in the pocket of her tweed suit and carry him away. Ruben Gonzalez hit piano chords percussively as though playing a cowbell, and then produced one of his trademark delicate and sophisticated run sequences, Chopin goes to Havana.

It was during the all-percussion introduction to "Fiesta della Rumba" that something else started happening. The timbales, maracas, dumbek, conga, bongos and udu drum, improvising together in a thicket of cross-rhythms, were conjuring some wild sad spirit out of the night air. The drums crackled like burning logs.

 Oh fire, fire, fire, I’m burning

I had to get up and dance towards the stage, the maracas were sizzling

 Oh fire, fire, fire, I’m burning

Balding exmiddlemanagers who’d never danced anything funkier than a foxtrot stood up and shimmied

 Oh fire, fire, fire, I’m burning

A man in a baggy ghostly-white suit with slicked-back hair and a thin moustache appeared in front of a Basingstoke girl near the stage

 Oh fire, fire, fire, I’m burning

He touched her arm and she shivered

 Oh fire, fire, fire, I’m burning

Sparks flying, flames roaring

 Oh fire, fire, fire, I’m burning

The back wall of the concert hall curled away and we could see out into the Basingstoke night, the air was warm and humid

 Oh fire, fire, fire, I’m burning

The plaster facade of the house opposite the concert hall crumbled, a wrought iron balcony crawled across it

 Oh fire, fire, fire, I’m burning

Palm trees and sugar cane sprouted in the municipal flower beds

 Oh fire, fire, fire, I’m burning

Creepers ran along the concrete underpass and opened purple flowers against the windows of the teashops

 Oh fire, fire, fire, I’m burning

Flower patterns matching Juan de Marcos Gonzalez’ shirt bloomed on the aprons of the sour-faced waitresses

 I’m burning

As the waitresses poured tea into the teacups it turned into

1 crushed ice chunk
juice and zest of 1 lime
8cl light rum
1 shot cola
 I’m burning

All the matrons in the tea shops lit fat cigars, holding them delicately between three fingers

 I’m burning

Cigar smoke snaked out of the tea shops and coiled around Basingstoke’s central traffic circle, scarlet fire engines dashed out of Basingstoke fire station with sirens squealing like trumpets

 I’m burning
 I’m burning

In the foyer after the concert some of the band were sitting round a table, drinking rum and talking. They were still wearing their berets and trilbys. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to follow what they were saying, but I liked the sound, with complex rhythms and pauses and repetitions. At first they all spoke sequences of just a few words. Then Pio Leyva began a tall tale. After each of his phrases the others repeated a chorus of encouragement, stoking up the tempo. He gestured with his whole arm, like a preacher. Ibrahim Ferrer started to argue with him in counterpoint, softly at first but with increasing volume and passion. The others joined in supporting one or the other side. Carlos Alvarez started–with dramatic timing–a new subject of his own. Ruben Gonzalez made a breakneck-speed declaration all in one breath, each syllable evenly accented. Everyone was now talking simultaneously, responding to all the others, the rhythms more interwoven and intense. After several thrilling minutes the speakers one by one slowed down, paused, sipped rum, and smiled, until there was silence.

They were experts, these old men. They could bring a conversation to the edge of chaos just for fun, without ever losing their equilibrium. They had spent the better part of a century perfecting the art of sitting round a bottle of rum, and talking.

I walked out of the foyer and back to Basingstoke station. The night was warm. On the station platform in a pool of yellow light a pewter-haired man and a sensibly-suited woman were discreetly embracing beside a potted palm.– Miranda Mowbray

Copyright © 1999 Miranda Mowbray. All rights reserved.

try these at home

 The Buena Vista Social Club, World Circuit/Nonesuch CD (see our review)
The Afro-Cuban All Stars
 A Toda Cuba le Gusta, World Circuit/Nonesuch CD
Ruben Gonzalez
 Introducing..., World Circuit/Nonesuch CD (see our review)
Jesús Alemañy
 Cubanismo!, Hannibal /Ryko CD
Sierra Maestra
 Dundunbanza!, World Circuit/Nonesuch CD
New Sadler’s Wells Opera Company
 Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore, MCA CD