In the first week of November the temperature starts dipping below freezing in Kingston Ontario, so it was some relief to have a warm Caribbean breeze blow in from Cuba November 3/10 and plunk itself down on stage at the city’s Grand Theatre. Septeto Nacional has been bringing son habanero (the sound of Havana) to the rest of the world in various incarnations since 1927 and it was the fourth generation of players who blew into town and succeeded in helping to stave off winter a little longer. Infectious, enthusiastic and skilled the seven-piece band (and two friends) seduced the evening’s crowd with the sultry rhythms of their Afro/Cuban music.
On tour in support of its newly released CD, Sin Rumba no hay Son!, the band is criss-crossing North America. While the CD is a joy to listen to, it’s only be seeing and hearing Septeto in performance that you can truly experience their finer qualities. Under the leadership of vocalist Euenio Rodriguez Rodriguez, “Raspa”, the seven piece band weaves a musical spell that works its way under an audience’s skin without them noticing. Just before intermission they showed how successful they had been by pulling the entire audience out of their seats to have them swaying to their music and dancing in the aisles.
The backbone of the band is their rhythm section, consisting of Francisco David Oropesa Fernandes “El Matador” on bongos, Dagoberto Sacerio Oliva on guitar and Raul Acea Rivera on Bass. For those of us used to a band requiring at least a drummer playing a full kit and maybe an additional percussionist in order to lay down a steady beat, it might seem that one man playing bongos would be insufficient to create anything solid enough to carry a song, let alone a band. However, “El Matador” not only was strong enough to get toes tapping, he worked in fills and frills that would make many a jazz drummer green with envy with only his two hands and one set of bongos. With Rivera and Oliva laying down the current feeding the tempo, Fernandes skipped and hopped like a water bug over top giving the music that extra edge which allows it to mysteriously find its way into an audience’s feet.
Enrique Collazo Collazo on tres (a Cuban guitar) and Agustin Someillan Garcia on trumpet rode the stream laid down by their rhythm section like experienced sailors running before a steady wind. Collazo’s subtle yet intricate fingering was a constant presence as he picked out melodies on his instrument. However, unlike rock and roll lead guitar players who seem to be always demanding that we pay attention to them with their flamboyant moves and attitude, Collazo played in service to the song at hand and nothing else. While he was always felt, the only time you were really aware of him was during his specific solos.
A trumpet stands out at the best of times, so you’d think as the sole brass instrument amongst Septepto’s players it would stick out like a soar thumb. However, in the case of Garcia, unless you specifically listened for him, he integrated himself so well into the band’s sound, you would be forgiven for forgetting there was even a trumpet playing. That’s not to say he was buried in the mix, or anything like that. Rather his playing was so perfectly pitched to the rest of the band’s sound it was like he was singing another harmony to the two lead’s vocals.
While Crispin Diaz Hernandez left the bulk of the lead vocals to his senior, “Raspa”, when his turn came he showed a skill set that equalled the maestro’s. It was he who was responsible for pulling the audience to their feet at the end of the first intermission through the simple expedient of a big smile and gesturing with his hand that everybody should rise. (As none of the band spoke much English, most of the on stage patter was lost on the mainly Anglo audience, although judging by the laughter rising from the pockets of Latinos present it must have been funny). However, he wasn’t just good at communicating with the audience, he had a wonderfully expressive and evocative voice, and you couldn’t help but be swept up by the enthusiasm generated by his performance.
Yet, in spite of the skill shown by the rest of the band, whenever the dapper figure of Eugenio Rodriguez Rodriguez “Raspa” stepped up to take the spotlight, we were all instantly in the palm of his hand. Playing a bit of a fool with his between-the-song patter, slipping in and out of rapid fire gibberish and Spanish and pulling faces as if he just stepped off some vaudeville stage of the twenties, the moment he opened his mouth to sing you were transported. You wouldn’t think such a small body could contain such a large voice. Soaring over the rest of the band he effortlessly carried the audience with him on every one of his flights of fancy. Not understanding his lyrics didn’t seem as important as being carried away by the delight of listening to him sing.
Septeto Nacional are coming to the end of their fall North American tour, but will be back again in the spring. (You can find details of their tour on their page at the World Village Music web site) to hit any of the places they might have missed this time round. Judging by their performance in Kingston Ontario last night (Wednesday November 3rd/10) this isn’t a band you want to miss hearing and seeing perform if the opportunity presents itself. My only complaint was there wasn’t a program telling us who the guests were joining them on stage, which prevents me from giving credit to the guest vocalist and the Em C who are travelling with them.
There aren’t too many bands who can get an audience ranging in age from tots to seniors up and dancing en masse, but these guys can and will. So bring along a pair of dancing shoes and practice smiling because you’re going to be doing plenty of both.