Hailing from Havana, Sierra Maestra are no strangers to the UK. They were here only last spring (2011), when they also played in Edinburgh.
At their March 2012 gig, the band had everyone on their feet all night, as you would expect from a 34-year old, Latin grammy-nominated combo. Even those less familiar with Sierra Maestra’s signature son rhythms shed their inhibitions and took to the floor. As well as several son numbers, they played other classic Cuban rhythms such as rumba, guaguancó and a conga. With a little animation and demonstration from Edinburgh’s tiny Cuban community, we were guided through some of the less familiar beats by experts.
Thanks to the success of the Buena Vista Social Club film and subsequent tours of its stars, son – even if European listeners don’t always distinguish it from the more popular (and populist) salsa rhythm – has experienced a recent popularity worldwide. The Buena Vista idea (and by extension the resurgence in popularity of Cuban music and dance beyond the shores of Castro’s island) is attributed to Sierra Maestra’s tres player, Juan de Marcos González. Many of band’s musicians wouldn’t have looked out of place in the film, age-wise. Sadly, it took so long for the talent of the Buena Vista stars to be recognised outside of Cuba that many have now passed away. We can be thankful, however, that bands such as Sierra Maestra are able to tour and find such enthusiastic audiences so far from the Caribbean sunshine.
Compared to salsa, comparatively few people outside Cuba learn or teach son. More’s the pity, as it is one of the key building blocks of modern Cuban salsa. Less overtly sexual than Cuban rumba; more elegant than salsa, son oozes class and a certain formality not always common to Latin dance styles. Son steps are very similar to salsa steps – son precedes salsa historically. However, son is always danced contratiempo (against the beat; syncopated), which is what makes it so tricky to learn. Some teachers call it ‘on 2’, others say ‘on 4’. However it’s described, when dancing son, you have to dig the 5 beats of the clave rhythm out of the mass of percussion and melody or it’s all too easy to slip back onto the beat. But then it’s only the rhythmically challenged non-Cubans among us who worry about the counting anyway. As Cuban conga player and band leader Mongo Santamaria said: “In Cuba we just play. We feel it, we don’t talk about such things.”
A version of this review also appears on my Edinburgh Reviews blog.
© Lynn Sheppard (words and pictures)