Cuban movie clips from the 1950s with Benny Moré or La Matancera present us with cabaret situations where singers display their roguery to seduce beautiful women who dance like goddesses (or devils). The plots almost always involve a wealthy gentleman seated at a table who ends up getting angry at the triumph of the singer’s plebeian talent over money and surname. Nobody could resist the charms of Benny Moré. Analyze his handling of image, his dance steps, his fantastic pants, his melodic African pentatonics that flowed like honey in his improvisations, his mastery of the stage extending to theater and dance. I never tire of watching those old stationary-camera clips – they far surpass current productions where it is impossible to distinguish whether the artist is really singing and dancing or if it is software that makes him move. From the golden years of the 1950s, we jump into a void – all that is left to us are fragments of Mexican television with Daniel Santos smoking a bolero alone on a props bench, combed with coffin brilliantine. During those years, the future oldies of the Buena Vista quietly tuned their drums in the obligatory silence of the sugarcane harvests, pining for the times of Piñeiro while Fania invaded the commercial salsa scene with its armies of baby boomers exiled in Spanish Harlem.
In the festival of Varadero, Cuba in 1983, an extraordinary Venezuelan shakes things up, taking on the classic repertoire of Benny Moré as if nothing had happened – neither the Puerto Rican revelation of Ismael Rivera nor the street philosophy of Pedro Navaja, the formidable danceable glitter of Pacheco, the fury of Irakere Valdez, the steamrolling big band of Eddie Palmieri. I have in my hands a record of that night, a DVD of the festival where Oscar D’León demonstrates the cultural unity of the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, the validity of the son classics, demolishing collective apathy with a massive injection of talent, resuscitating the “Mata Siguaraya.” It’s a historical document – in it we see a phenomenon that surpasses all well-known performances: a bassist/singer/conductor/dancer/producer who ends the night by throwing himself to the floor with his instrument to invent a surprising horizontal choreography that only the cameras can capture, epilogue of a concert performed with every fiber of his being, including the indispensible white fringes on his outfit that prolonged each dance movement with surges of luxurious frivolity, as if to say to the purists, “White leather is not just for Elvis.” I try to imagine the impression he made on the Cuban public – almost Calvinist after two decades of blockades – seeing a Caraqueño, citizen of a fortunate and relatively prosperous country, execute an overwhelming demonstration of the emblematic genre of the last Spanish colony with such sensuality, such vehemence, and such ownership.
Recently, we followed closely the news of Oscar D’Léon’s health problems (now improved). He is without doubt the most beloved Venezuelan musician in the ill-named “third world” since the 1970s, and there is something supernatural, shamanic, in the incontestable energy of his Varadero concert – something overwhelming that will continue to beat for a long time: his heart.
Translated from Spanish by Rosemary Holland