It is a near certainty that anyone who has attended an event at the badly aging and somewhat depressing Page Auditorium on the west campus of Duke University would never mistake that venue for a nightclub in Havana in the 1950s. However, Duke Performances’ presentation of the legendary Juan de Marcos and his Afro-Cuban All Stars resulted in that transformation. That joint was jumpin’ to such an extreme that there were persons assigned to attempt to keep some semblance of safety in the venue.

This is another example of musicians whose names may not even be recognizable to some (or most), but to those familiar with that musical genre, they are living legends, and this was perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see and hear them in person. When the fifteen musicians came out, their leader, Juan de Marcos, gave a brief, hopeful plea that during this administration the ridiculous fifty year state-of-affairs between the United States and Cuba would finally end. Then they began to play, and the silly and damaging politics of small-minded men (mostly), melted away.

During the 1950s, Havana was the destination for Americans for great hotels, food, beaches and music. With the ascension of communism on the island and the end of diplomatic relations between the U.S.A. and Cuba, their remarkably rich musical culture took a severe beating. One of the major events of the resurrection of this music was Juan de Marcos’s 1997 release of The Buena Vista Social Club which brought aging Cuban musicians back to the recording studio. With the help of American bluesman Ry Cooder, it became a huge hit and cultural phenomenon.

Although there is just about the same number of players as a traditional jazz big band and the physical setup looks similar, it is quite a different animal. Instead of one drummer, there are four percussionists: Rolando Salgado on bongos, Tony Morceaux on timbales, Antonio Portuondo on congas and Gliceria Abreu on Afro-Cuban percussion. This was in addition to the other musicians also playing other various percussion instruments: rhythm is everything here. There is no “drum set” in the traditional sense. There are three trumpeters, one baritone sax player and no trombones.

The infectious rhythms immediately struck, causing even highly repressed persons like this writer to want to get up and dance. Despite my distinction of this group from an American jazz big band, during their lengthy opening number the complex multi-layered rhythms dropped out, bassist Alberto Pantaleon switched to a walking bass line and we had a mini-jazz jam with a couple of trumpet solos, and most impressively, that of pianist Gabriel Hernandez. Just as suddenly it switched back to a Cuban-infused rhythm.

We then had an absolutely mind-blowing solo by the pianist, a big bear of a man who played with such stunning creativity and velocity that I can only compare him with legends like Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. Despite this one exception, the general concept of this style is not showing off virtuosic soloists, but the ensemble, the energy and rhythm, rhythm, rhythm.

Juan de Marcos is an affable, dreadlocked host and leader who, in addition to his musical duties, often engaged in somewhat rambling discourses on string theory (the physics theorem, not anything to do with bowed instruments), and other philosophies. Along with de Marcos on the front lines of the band, was a trio of male singers: Evelio Galan, Emilio Suarez and Gilito Pinera. Along with their great voices, they all engaged in choreographed moves which reminded me a bit of the original Temptations. They also often ventured off stage and into the auditorium where several female members of the audience swooned as they sang to and danced with them.     

I was not able to actually get titles of the songs they performed, or understand what they were singing, but that is totally irrelevant — you had to be there, and if you were, you know what I mean. By the last third of the program it had become a totally participatory event with everyone standing, people dancing in the aisles (despite repeated attempts to keep them clear), and a celebratory feeling. The cold air upon exit to Duke’s campus seemed like a slap in the face when we had just experienced what it must have been like in the hot, sultry nights of pre-revolutionary Cuba.