by Derk Richardson | special to SF Gate
In the wake of the Buena Vista Social Club’s tsunami-scale splash in 1997, a host of veteran Cuban musicians—including composer/guitarist Compay Segundo, pianist Ruben Gonzalez, guitarist Eliades Ochoa and singers Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo—enjoyed high-profile revivals of their careers.
Thanks to enormously successful Buena Vista Social Club and Afro-Cuban All Stars tours, and huge sales of the CDs produced by the World Circuit label’s Nick Gold and roots-savvy guitarist Ry Cooder, these performers have become household names among world-music fans.
For one younger Buena Vista Social Club-affiliated artist, the ascent to international recognition has been more gradual. But as Barbarito Torres is demonstrating with the first two albums under his own name on the Havana Caliente label, 1999’s Havana Cafe and the new Barbarito Torres, and the tour that brings him to the Fillmore in San Francisco on Saturday, Nov. 29, the laud (Cuban lute) virtuoso is primed for stardom in his own right.
Perhaps Torres can attribute his more slowly simmering notoriety to the fact that he was not (like Segundo) 90 years old when the Buena Vista phenomenon hit; to his launching his professional career only 33 years ago (unlike Gonzalez, who began playing with major orchestras in Havana in 1941); to his not being signed by the World Circuit and Nonesuch labels that gave international exposure to his Buena Vista colleagues; or to the unfamiliarity of his instrument, an indigenous short-necked 12-string lute that was traditionally used for “country” music in his native region of Matanzas.
Before sharing in the Grammy-winning triumph of the Buena Vista Social Club recording, Torres was content to be one of Cuba’s most in-demand instrumentalists. He had been a member of Orquesta Cubana de Cuerdas and Grupo Manguare, played on records by Sierra Maestra, Albita and others and served as musical director for the legendary Celina Gonzalez. But with a push from his wife and manager, singer Sonia Perez Cassola, Torres finally formed a permanent band and launched his solo career in earnest.
“I will always be invited to play with other bands,” he said in a phone interview (translated by his road manager, Tommy Zenoz) last weekend from Austin, Texas, the morning after performing at the downtown blues club Antone’s. “But from now on I will always have my own band.”
That’s good news for anyone who has heard Torres’ two albums, or focused in on his playing on many of the Buena Vista Social Club artists’ CDs. His laud playing is a dazzling marvel of rhythmic precision and melodic invention. The instrument sounds something like a mandolin with a fuller bass range, and Torres’ mastery of its taut strings and chiming overtones could easily be appreciated by fans of American bluegrass and new acoustic music wizards like Bill Monroe, David Grisman, Mike Marshall and Chris Thile. His playing is rooted in the bluesy musica guajira of the Cuban countryside but takes many unpredictable, harmonically adventurous turns into all kinds of musical idioms.
Torres took up the laud when he was 10 years old, because, he says, “it was the first instrument I saw in my house when I opened my eyes as a child. My father played the laud, and children always follow their fathers. I started down that road, and here I am today.”
His father would boast that young Barbarito was going to become the world’s best laud player, and devoted himself to assisting in that quest. “My father did everything possible for me so I could become the laudist that I am now,” Torres explains, “to the point where he quit playing himself and did everything to make sure I had the right instruments and strings. He worked very hard to make sure I had the best teachers, and he even made my picks and cases.”
“It’s a very demanding instrument,” Torres says of the laud. “I have to play mine at least an hour every day, or else it will bite me.”
Although Matanzas is known as “the land of the poets” and for the musical styles of danzon and the rumba, Torres points out that “in Cuba, all the genres are played in all the regions, and when you play onstage, you prepare the audience by explaining to them the area of the island that the music comes from and what style it is.” Traditionally, the laud was central to Cuba’s archetypal countryside band, the conjunto guajiro, but Torres has adapted it to a wide variety of styles. He grew up with access to a large library of recordings at home, and listened intently to such American guitarists as George Benson, Pat Metheny, Al DiMeola, B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix and Chuck Berry.
“What I do with my music is experiment,” he says. “I make fusions of different genres of Cuban music. They are contemporary, modern experiments, but I respect the roots, the traditions. And when I try one of my experiments, I go ahead and play it for the young people of Cuba, because they are the perfect gauge as to whether the experiment works and will be accepted or not. There’s still a lot to be done. I’m exploring myself within, little by little.”
Torres’ recordings feature a number of special guests, including singers Ferrer, Portuondo, Jesus Bello and Pio Leyva, pianist Frank Emilio Flynn and trumpeter Luis “El Guajiro” Mirabel. The new CD includes a daring trio track with Torres matching his laud virtuosity with the jazz piano of Chucho Valdez, accompanied only by bassist Jorge Reyes.
“It was dream come true to play with him,” Torres says of Valdez. “It was not only my dream, but my wife’s, too. The recording was a funny experience. We arrived at the studio at the same time, and he said, ‘Well, what are we doing here? What are we going to do?’ I said, ‘I want you to be the American jazz influence, and I want to be the country boy, el guajiro.’ He said, ‘Well, let’s give it a go,’ and you can hear what happened in the song.”
His combination of traditional Afro-Cubanauthenticity and in-the-moment spontaneity is a big part of Torres’ appeal. Flexibility also helps him adapt to the fickle winds of the political climate. His current tour has been plagued by the petty bureaucratic machinations that continue to hamper cultural exchange between Cuba and the United States. Torres was forced to cancel and reschedule several concerts when his work permit was delayed, and, as of last week, his sister and lead singer, Conchita Torres, was still in Havana, waiting for her visa to be approved.
“It’s a tragedy that we don’t have her with us,” he says. “She’s the No. 1 folk singer in the country at this moment. They are always trying to use the arts for political reasons. The culture of the U.S. and Cuba is very entwined, but it’s very difficult to get our leaders to tune in to music.”
When given a chance, however, audiences never have that problem.
Barbarito Torres and his band perform Saturday, Nov. 29 with Hamsa Lila, Hypnomadic, featuring Soulsalaam, and Jeffery Stott at the Fillmore, 1805 Geary Blvd., S.F. Show time is 9 pm. Tickets cost $16.50. For more information, call (415) 346-6000