Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Magnificent Seven Return: Septeto Nacional de Cuba in Chicago

“Without the Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Piñeiro, there would be no mambo! There would be no salsa! There would have been no Buenavista Social Cluuuuuuub!” - called out from the stage of Old Town School of Folk Music by a handsome, somewhat older gentlemen bedecked in white from tips of shiny shoes to rakish beret. This by way of introducing the performance of the acclaimed seven-member ensemble founded in Cuba in 1927. Their mission for nearly eight decades has been to preserve the legacy of their beloved founder Piñeiro, an illustrious and incredibly prolific bassist/composer – he´s credited with some 327 songs - whose popularity was so great that even friend George Gershwin incorporated a fragment from one of Piñeiro's tunes into his own “Cuban Overture¨.

Eugenio Rodríguez
The current version of the Septeto, headed by singer Eugenio “Raspa” Rodríguez and bongo player Frank “El Matador” Oropesa, is a group of veteran musicians who are truly virtuosos of the Cuban son,  a creolized New World music that was created by the cultures in collision and contact in the island. The genre´s elements of Spanish canción and guitar music with African rhythms and percussion are beautifully expressed in melodies that highlight the interchanges between vocals, upright bass, trumpet, bongos, and percussion with the heart and soul of Cuban son--the tres, a guitar-like instrument with three double strings (hence the name “tres”). The earliest versions of this staple Cuban instrument are said to have been made from codfish boxes by African-Cuban dock workers.

Enrique Collazo
The concert at Old Town was ample evidence that the introduction was no exaggeration. Each performer contributed masterfully to weaving a magical musical spell of delicate and rhythmic texture, practically a Cuban sonic landscape. It was also impossible to sit still, and with encouragement from the band, the audience was frequently on its feet, shimmy-ing and shaking as much as was allowed by the bench formation of Old Town School´s auditorium. Each instrument was played in a way that one could easily focus on its melody and beats individually. Vocals harmonized, the tres’ delicate and intricate lacework of melodies coursed through the room, the trumpet blared golden, the guitar moved it along, bongo punctuated and maracas shimmered.

Dagoberto Sacerio Oliva
We heard the classic “Echale Salsita” (Piñeiro was the first to mention "salsa" in that song in 1933), participated in the call and response of some of the songs that displayed their Afro-Cuban roots most markedly, and even danced slowly to a couple of boleros. It was a night to remember!

Small wonder that the Septeto is recognized as Patrimonio Nacional de la Cultura Cubana (a national treasure of Cuban culture). In 2009, they were the first Cuban musicians to receive visas from the State Department after no Cuban musicians had entered the U.S. in a six-year period. They came to Chicago that year, and we are privileged they came to visit us again to share the exuberant joy of Piñeiro's Cuban son.

- Catalina Maria Johnson

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