Listening to the Afro-Cuban All-Stars perform "Distinto, Diferente (Unique, Different)," the title track from their recent second album and a scathing condemnation of the mediocrity currently afflicting the music scene in Cuba, one couldn't help notice the irony.
On Friday at UCLA's Royce Hall, the 18-piece group led by tres player Juan de Marcos Gonzalez was anything but distinto and diferente. A Buena Vista Social Club spinoff, it struggles so desperately to sound like that best-selling project that it dilutes the considerable talent of its participants.
Anybody who has experienced the Buena Vista Social Club live, or has seen the Wim Wenders-directed documentary on the Cuban musicians, knows that the magic created by pianist Ruben Gonzalez and singers Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo is tough to match.
The All-Stars attempted to mimic that intangible quality throughout Friday's show. And although it is always interesting to hear veteran singers such as Teresa Garcia Caturla and Manuel "Puntillita" Licea, the ensemble's expected selection of sones, guarachas and boleros didn't rise above being just adequate. An interminable version of the standard "Los Tamalitos de Olga" didn't help the cause either.
Perhaps the biggest waste was the combined presence of timbalero Amadito Valdes and conguero Miguel Anga Diaz. Whereas Valdes represents the ultra-conservative, old-fashioned approach to Afro-Cuban percussion, Anga is part of a new generation of young lions who like their rhythms fast, furious and technically complex. An ongoing duel between those two would have been fascinating.
Seemingly unaware of the outfit's unfocused approach, the capacity audience reacted with exaggerated fervor every time there was a solo, a staged moment of Latin heat, or a dance-inducing tumbao on the piano. At this point of the game, of course, the whole Cuban revival thing is as much about the hype as it is about the music.