Afro-Cuban Sounds Mean Sellout in Seoul

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Afro-Cuban Sounds Mean Sellout in Seoul

The newest heartthrob to come to town has white hair, stands at less than 160 cm and limps, but he is magical at the piano.

Ruben Gonzalez, 80, performed at LG Arts Center on Monday and Tuesday nights with vocalists Omara Portuondo, 70, and Ibrahim Ferrer, 73, and other members of the famed Buena Vista Social Club from Cuba.

Watching them perform, it was easy to see why Buena Vista Social Club has charmed the world. The three headlining musicians took turns enchanting the audience of more than 1,000 during each of the daily two-and-a-half-hour performances. Tickets were sold out for both nights. The music was playful, romantic, but most of all, emotional.

The rise of Buena Vista Social Club's fame lies with a documentary, also titled "Buena Vista Social Club," about Cuba, its people and its musical past and future.

Wim Wender, a German filmmaker, and Ry Cooder, an American guitarist, visited Cuba in 1996 searching for the vibrant music that was once integral to the island's nightlife. They had heard of dance halls where singers crooned about love and people danced to music influenced by European brass instruments, African percussion and American jazz.

Mr. Cooder and Mr. Wender joined forces with Nick Gold and Juan de Marcos Gonzalez. Mr. Gonzalez found Mr. Ferrer strolling along the streets of Havana. In semi-retirement, he made money by occasionally shining shoes. Juan de Marcos Gonzalez also tracked down Ruben Gonzalez (no relation), one of the pioneers of the Afro-Cuban piano style.

After gathering 20 musicians, Mr. Wender recorded their music - the resultant CD picked up a Grammy in 1997 - and filmed their story and their rise once again, this time to a world audience. Since the release of the film in 1999, some of the musicians have recorded other albums and toured the world.

Buena Vista Social Club started its tour of Asia and Australia in Korea. On Monday, Ms. Portuondo commanded the stage with a powerful voice and such brilliant charisma that when she waved her hands, half the audience leapt to their feet, clapping and swaying. Age melted away as she danced and sang the dramatic "Donde Estabas Tu?"

When a balky bass kept breaking and had to be repaired off-stage, the music continued with a carefree attitude that made humorous what literally could have been a show stopper.

Mr. Ferrer, the lord of the bolera, arrived on stage to a standing ovation, looking dashing with a cap perched rakishly on his head.

At the end of the concert, Ruben Gonzalez returned for an encore performance of "Dos Gardenias," followed by Mr. Ferrer singing "Silencio" and "Candela" with Ms. Portuondo. The seemingly spontaneous rhythms kept the audience swaying and absorbed through the last set of songs.

by Joe Yong-hee

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