Lessons from Buena Vista Orchestra

Last night was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve enjoyed for a very long time. Eight months after buying the tickets, I witnessed the phenomenon that is the Buena Vista Orchestra (also known as Orquestra Buena Vista & Buena Vista Social Club).

Many of the original stars from that special night in Carnegie Hall in 1998 have since passed on, but what remains is still a testament to the skill, passion and fun of Cuban musicians, many of whom have been formative in the creation of what we now know as Latin music.

Reflecting on why they were so special, I came up with several things that set them apart from other concerts and bands I have seen (and enjoyed):

  1. A sense of history – Many of these people have helped to create the music synonymous with Cuba, the platform on which today’s musicians build. Age is no issue; it’s a strength and a valuable commodity. Experience is something we often overlook as we clamber to be new and different; often too insecure to learn from those who’ve gone before.
  2. A sense of value and heritage – These people are firmly connected to their music and cultural roots. It’s not a problem; it’s a bonus. They are not afraid of their culture, nor to share that culture and history with their audience, most of whom have little or no connection to it (apart from music). It’s not about preaching; it’s about showing and sharing; inviting others on board … and judging by the response of the 2500 people at the concert, they were successful.
  3. They connected with their audience – Many of us could learn a great deal from the members of Buena Vista Orchestra. They brought something that can be difficult to connect with if you’re not a part of that culture … and enabled us to connect with it. Even musicians often fail to connect with the complex rhythms, how the pieces fit together, how the melodies interweave. Others can’t handle the fluidity and movement in the music, music that doesn’t sit comfortably with a click track yet is devilishly tight. Yet, this wasn’t a problem for the audience as these masters of their art communicated with people’s hearts and souls, calling them on board to experience something new, even if they didn’t understand it. They felt it, were drawn in by it and stoked the fire for more … which they got!
  4. They promoted each other – The musicians were clearly ‘old school’ in their playing, but that is what made it so great. There were no stars on stage; they were all stars and they created a platform for their colleagues to shine. Their playing was an expression of themselves but was for each other and the audience, not self-indulgent and about themselves … a lesson many of us could learn.
  5. They exuded joy – Music wasn’t just something technical to be played; it wasn’t just an exercise in playing the correct notes; being safe or cerebral. The music they played was part of them; it was their soul; their passion; something to express who they are; from their hearts. It was something to enjoy and that enjoyment spurred each other on and fired the audience. Their enthusiasm and passion was infectious, drawing others in.
  6. They were themselves – As we passed the stage door after the gig (and there was no-one else around … how rare is that?) the band emerged and were no different to how they were on stage; smiling, laughing and very willing to give time for a brief chat and sign tickets.

It took me a long time to fall asleep last night. I was full of the gig and my mind raced over and over through the tunes and why I’d enjoyed the evening so much.

Now all I need to do is apply some of what I’ve learnt and hopefully those I meet will benefit.

Thank you Orquestra Buena Vista. Long may you continue to inspire those who have the privilege and pleasure of witnessing your concerts (and your music).

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