Minutes before Cuban torch singer Omara Portuondo took the Massey Hall stage, a familiar voice -- strangely reminiscent of both Malcolm X and Hurricane Carter -- could be heard quietly retelling the Buena Vista Social Club story in the seat behind me.
"This guitarist dude went to Havana and dug up all these great musicians from the days before Castro," he whispered to the person next to him, "and then they made an album." Nonchalantly, I glanced back to find that the tutorial was being conducted by Denzel Washington, doing a bad job of looking inconspicuous in a bright red baseball hat.
"Hey, Denzel," I casually blurted as his three bodyguards leaned forward, "I didn't know you were into Cuban music."
"Oh, yeah," he smiled, "I grew up in New York, so latin music was everywhere. I love Afro-Cuban music!"
"Cool," I nodded, slowly turning back around in my seat to avoid getting a cap in my ass. Just then, a cheer went up signalling Portuondo's arrival.
But the enthusiastic shouts arose out of relief more than gleeful anticipation after the snore-inducing opening set of academic son conducted by laud virtuoso Barbarito Torres and his stone-faced friends.
The moment Portuondo's 12-piece backing orchestra, led by trombonist Jesus Ramos Redonet and tres maestro Papi Oviedo, started swinging, the whole tenor of the evening changed dramatically. Trumpets started blaring, saxophones honked while percussionists Carlos Naranjo and Julio Guerra Acosta slapped up a bubbly bolero, and suddenly the bloodless recital was a full-on party.
Still, it was Portuondo's gig, and the grand dame of Cuban son felt compelled to demonstrate that she still has what it takes. After breezing through a few mid-tempo guarachas as a warm-up, she stepped forward and began belting.
At one point, she pushed the microphone out to arm's length and let ring a piercing note for what seemed like minutes, leaving more than a few unsuspecting patrons cupping their ears for protection.
In spite of that booming power, Portuondo is at her best on slow, smouldering boleros. She knows when to hang onto a note to maximize a song's dramatic impact, and she delivered with awe-inspiring effect. A heart-stopper.
OMARA PORTUONDO, with BARBARITO TORRES,at Massey Hall, October 17. Tickets: $42.50-$65.50. Attendance: 2,000. Rating: NNNN