Before 20 or so musicians gathered in Havana for recording sessions dedicated to traditional Cuban Son, the Buena Vista Social Club had been exclusive – a members-only society for Afro-Cuban performers between the 1940s and late ’50s.
In 1996, during preproduction of what would become a Grammy-winning album, the newly resurrected group of the same name broadened its enrollment criteria; anyone who could help re-create the forgotten dance-hall rhythms of Cuba’s musical golden age was invited to play along.
Since the release of that Billboard chart-topping debut record in 1997, the band has continued to perform live worldwide despite losing many original members along the way, including singer Ibrahim Ferrer, composer Compay Segundo and pianist Rubén González.
Nearly two decades later, the touring ensemble of the Buena Vista Social Club – Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club – is on its “Adios Tour,” which includes a stop at UC Davis’ Mondavi Center on Wednesday, Oct. 7, its third visit to the venue since 2003.
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Having started out in Poland in June 2014, the tour will run through 2015 with performances in Canada, the United States, South America, the Middle East and Asia, eventually capping off with a homecoming concert in Havana sometime next year. After the “Adios Tour,” Orquesta members will go their separate ways.
“They’re sort of retiring the group at the right moment, in part because they’ve lost quite a few members,” said Mondavi associate executive director Jeremy Ganter. “They’re still playing really well, but I think they’re aware that, at least for this band, it’s kind of the end of the line for them. They’re going out on a high note, probably literally. And I really respect that.”
Ganter says based on previous performances and the fact this is an “Adios” tour, he expects to hear a lot of songs from their first album – hit singles such as “Candela,” “El Cuarto de Tula” and “Dos Gardenias,” not to mention the fan-favorite “Chan Chan.”
Ganter says he also expects Omara Portuondo to make her presence felt as the single lead female singer, as well as one of five original members still alive from the Buena Vista Social Club.
“She is, I think, both kind of literally – in terms of being the lead singer – and kind of spiritually the leader of the band,” Ganter adds. “And it’s certainly always one of the great moments of a Buena Vista show when she comes out onstage for the first time ... this little, tiny woman who can just completely take over an entire room – even at her age.”
Besides Portuondo, the other four original members featured on the “Adios Tour” are Jesús “Aguaje” Ramos (trombone), Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal (trumpet), Eliades Ochoa (guitar) and Barbarito Torres (laúd).
Torres, who is the youngest surviving member and known for his high-caliber solos, says neither he nor his bandmates could ever have anticipated the kind of glory they’ve found in their music, which he calls “timeless classics” played from the heart.
“I’m very proud and honored to be part of this Project,” Torres said through email. “To have performed with great musicians and traveled around the world, the audience has been so warm with us!”
Torres went on to explain that he was not anxious about traditional Cuban music fading after their departure, seeing how it is at the core of so many genres of modern music today.
Rather, he’s taking this “Adios Tour” in stride, excited for every stop, including Davis.
“We are looking forward (to) our show at the Mondavi Center! We invite all fans to join us to celebrate music and life.”
Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club
When: 8 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 7
Where: Jackson Hall, UC Davis Mondavi Center, 9399 Old Davis Road, Davis
Information: 530-754-2787, mondaviarts.org