Published Jul 11, 2015"How many of you have been to Cuba?" asked Canadian-Cuban frontman Adonis Puentes during his band's opening set at the Halifax Jazz Festival Main Stage show last night (July 10). By my count, probably about a quarter of the crowd raised their hands.
That sounds about right. Reports suggest that close to a million Canadians visit Cuba annually, so a Cuban-themed night at a Canadian jazz festival is bound to attract a strong percentage of those local tourists. And Friday evening brought what may have been the largest crowd thus far at this year's festival — or, at the very least, the one that made the best use of the new wide-open venue layout. The Jazz Fest has done away with its once-iconic tent this year, allowing a much larger space in front of the stage for those who want to stand, sway and dance.
Last night, they danced: subtle salsa-ers in the middle, sit-and-sway-ers to stage right, and the show-offiest of show-offs to stage left. The energy levels started high and mostly stayed that way for Victoria-based Puentes and his Voice of Cuba Orchestra, who delivered a set full of infectious grooves that drew the crowd out from the back reaches of the parking lot and straight towards the stage. Puentes, an engaging performer, thanked the crowd and Halifax in general, noting that his first-ever solo performance was at the Jazz Festival years ago.
Juan de Marcos and his All Stars are also no strangers to the Halifax Jazz Festival, but it had been nearly ten years since their last visit to the city. de Marcos, a devotee of the classic 1950s Cuban sound, is a warm presence when he speaks to the crowd, yet at the same time, he's unquestionably a focused band leader, often leaving the microphone to ensure the three percussionists, three brass players and the rest of the band's ten other performers hit their marks at the end of a song.
Though de Marcos serves as one of his band's three vocalists, Emilio Suárez handled the heaviest vocal load throughout last night's set. As he crooned away, I spent a good deal of the set crowd watching, observing how the diverse audience was connecting with the music. Their affection and interest was palpable, particularly the most eager dancers of the bunch, but there was something about the experience that also felt more like tourism than a concert.
But isn't all music listening tourism, to an extent? It's diving into someone else's world on a level that never quite transcends the superficial, but can still hit upon something truthful in the process. Towards the end of the night, the crowd began to noticeably thin: with the set ending well after 11, many of the attendees chose to make their way home before the All Stars were finished. After all, it's not like they were waiting around for a particular hit single or favourite song. They were buying an experience — for those who had been to Cuba before, perhaps a memory.
Still, based on the quality and generosity of the performances they saw last night, they got more than their money's worth.