Chucho Valdes Presents New Band

By IRINA ECHARRY,  photos by CARIDAD

Ritual for the new band Akokan Ire
Ritual for the new band Akokan Ire

HAVANA TIMES, February 14 – Chucho Valdes’ opening night concert of Jazz Plaza 2009 was a sell out not long after tickets went on sale earlier in the week. By the time the show began a couple hundred more lucky people were able to squeeze into the Mella Theater to fill the aisles. The important thing was being there even if it was standing room only or sitting on the floor.

Chucho, with his charismatic stage presence, brought us his latest project, a new band called Akokan Ire, made up of a constellation of younger jazz talents, with a bass, drums, conga, chequere, four-piece brass section, timbales and the band leader on piano.

It was an exciting show where the good energy allowed the music to connect with the audience as if it was an act of magic. Maybe it had to do with the white powder used at the beginning of the band’s first ever performance, to purify the environment, the piano and Chucho himself. Even though we already knew he needs nothing to get his fans dreaming.

A highlight of the new group was the vigorous conga interpretations by Yaroldi Abreu that shook the theater more than once. At some points in the concert, Akonkan Ire reminded us of the sound of Irakere, the legendary group also led by Chucho, to which this festival is dedicated.

The songs included El planeta de Mingus (a tribute to Charles Mingus); a new version of Estela va a estallar; A hundred years of youth, a danzon featuring a solo by Alexander Abreu that drew a big applause, two lovely pieces, La margarita (a tribute to Jorge Varona, of Irakere) played by German Velasco on sax and Una noche en Cocosolo with the smooth trumpeting of Maikel Gonzalez.

Maikel Gonzalez with Akokan Ire
Maikel Gonzalez with Akokan Ire

There is no doubt that the climax came with the three female voices that took the stage: Mayra Caridad Valdes, Beatriz Marquez and Omara Portuondo, each with their very different personal style that thoroughly delighted an audience that gave them a long standing ovation.

Audience at Akokan Ire Premiere
Audience at Akokan Ire Premiere

Omara brought to mind her sister Haydee Portuondo, Moraima Secada, and the great Elena Burke, with her formidable interpretation of Summertime, playing with the styles of the singers “who are no longer physically here, but are still with us.”

Omara Portuondo at Jazz Plaza 2009
Omara Portuondo at Jazz Plaza 2009

It was a night of African chequeres, drums, magic voices, Yoruba chants, brass that floated in the air, a piano that vibrated even the most insensitive hearts and proof that Chucho isn’t lying when he says: “music is life.”

Mella Theater Jazz Plaza Opening Night
Mella Theater Jazz Plaza Opening Night

The Jazz Plaza 2009 festival continues through Sunday February 15. If you are in Cuba or just want to see who’s playing the full program can be seen at: http://www.festivaljazzplaza.icm.cu/programacion.html

See the HT festival preview report: Havana Jazz Plaza Feb.12-15

Click on the thumbnails to see all the photos in this gallery



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