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On Thursday night Elon University was host to a powerful, hip-shaking show by our musical neighbors from the South. The musical collective known in Cuba as Asere ("Friendship") is undertaking its first American tour under the name the Havana Cuba All-Stars. This spectacular group, made up of 11 of Cuba's finest musicians, is dedicated to preserving the country's rich musical traditions while incorporating contemporary elements.
Most of Asere's music is Son, the classic Afro-Cuban fusion style and one of the great musical genres of Latin America; but Asere is a multi-faceted group, and their Elon performance showcased a dazzling variety of styles. There was the famous Cha-cha, the politically charged Nueva Trova, the dance genre Rumba, and the sensual Rumba subgenre Guaguanco. Binding together all genres was an idiomatic bouncing rhythm, performed ever-consummately by the band.
The band was a colorful (and to the uninitiated, somewhat unusual) collection of instruments. The first thing I noticed looking at the stage setup was the wealth of percussion. There were congas, bongos, timbales, kick drum, cymbals, and cowbell. Three dedicated percussionists sat on risers at the rear of the stage, forming the backbone of the ensemble. The lead vocalists added guiro to complete the complement. Afro-Cuban music is famous for its complex, interlocking rhythms, and Asere excelled in this department: the percussion section was hugely powerful but nimble, their sound aided by a loud and pristine mix from the board.
Atop the percussion sat a trombone and trumpet, two violins, and guitar, while underneath rode a fat thumping electric bass. Completing the mix was tres, a guitar-like instrument with three courses (pairs) of strings. The slight separation in pitch between the two strings in each course creates a jingly "chorusing" sound. The effect is similar to a 12-string guitar, or to the pipe organ's celeste ranks. Before the concert began, I was surprised to see no keyboard on stage; hearing the tres chime in explained the mystery. This small instrument fills the middle of the spectrum with rich, luscious sound. Two players alternated between tres and guitarra Española ("Spanish guitar," the ordinary 6-string guitar), providing plenty of harmonic structure to the mix.
Finally, in addition to lead vocalist Piqui Fernández, almost everyone in the group sang – quite impressive.
All night my eyes were drawn to the musicians and their small fragments of dance. This was not virtuosic, carefully choreographed dance; neither was it the free sway and pulse of a musician simply moving along to the sound. The dance was a natural companion to the music, comfortable and yet precise, common among the musicians and yet adaptable to each body. I was amazed at how easily and intuitively singer or instrumentalist could slip into dance after playing a solo. Although not complex, the dance steps did follow a pattern corresponding to the musical phrases. Falling immediately into pattern while playing requires an almost unconscious familiarity with the rhythmic structure.
The friendly and welcoming group frequently invited the audience to rise from their seats in McCrary Theatre and dance along with the band; the audience obliged, with gusto. A small group of couples formed near the stage, where there was a little more space to move and an occasional chance to interact with the band.
Highlights of the evening included "Vengan Todos a Bailar el Son," a signature Asere tune. Bassist Jesus Cutiño took over lead vocals for this number, and proceeded to whip the crowd into a rhythmic frenzy. The bouncing, syncopated bass brought the tessellated percussion to life, while the tres wove in swirling arpeggios.
For the tender ballad "La Flor y la Hoja Seca," bandmaster and trumpeter Michel Padron explained the song's theme of unrequited love before inviting the couples to dance. Fernández was joined at the front of the stage by conga player and vocalist Vicente Arencibia. During the solos, these two amused the crowd by each pretending to hold a partner in their arms while dancing alone.
One of the finest tunes of the evening was "A Favor del Viento," featuring percussionist Eney Aranda on lead vocals. With punchy trumpet interjections and razor-sharp breaks in the percussion, "A Favor" exemplifies the power, precision, and charm of Cuban music. The group's energy was infectious, and most of the crowd stood to give some energy back.
I can't speak highly enough of Asere, their artistry, and the importance of finally allowing these musicians to tour in the United States. If you happen to be near an upcoming performance, make an effort to go see them. Fair warning: your hips may be sore the next morning.