Cuban-born Victoria pianist brings the music of his youth to his adopted hometown

IN CONCERT

What: A Night to Buena Vista Social Club and Rubén González
Where: Victoria Event Centre, 1415 Broad St.
When: Friday, Aug. 6, 9 p.m. (doors at 8)
Tickets: $52.50 from universe.com
Livestream: Victoria Event Centre on Facebook

The initial success of the Buena Vista Social Club collective — which brought traditional Cuban music to the masses — was somewhat lost on pianist Pablo Cardenas, who was a teenager when the album and documentary of the same name arrived almost out of nowhere on 1997.

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“When I was in Cuba, we didn’t play this music that much,” Cardenas said. “It was mostly played outside of Cuba. The younger generation was forgetting the value of this music.”

It wouldn’t take the musical prodigy long to come around. Cardenas eventually grew to love the music and musicians associated with the project, whose participation in the Academy Award-nominated documentary about the Buenavista quarter of Havana in the 1940s and ’50s made artists like Eliades Ochoa, Omara Portuondo, Barbarito Torres, Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González and Compay Segundo huge stars in their twilight years.

Cardenas, now 38 and based in Victoria, is paying tribute to the traditional trova, filin and danzón made famous by the aforementioned performers with A Night to Buena Vista Social Club and Rubén González, the latter of whom is a pioneering pianist in the area of Afro-Cuban jazz. Much of the music on the iconic Buena Vista Social Club recording will be heard at the event, with help from Cardenas’s collaborators in his West Coast Cuban Ensemble.

The concert, which will be held Friday at the Victoria Event Centre, takes Cardenas, who was born and raised in Matanzas, Cuba, back to his roots. He began studying music at seven years old, in the Conservatory of Music in Matanzas. By the time he was 17, he was a student at the National School of Music in Havana, around the same time the Buena Vista Social Club project took hold of audiences worldwide.

At first, he wasn’t aware of many of the musicians associated with the project, who had been retired for decades. He wasn’t alone — many of the young musicians in Cuba were completely unaware of the musicians being feted, he said. “I remember seeing so much news about it, but I didn’t know about those people. I didn’t know that individually, they were all super successful many years earlier. Now, they are considered the history of Cuban music. The terminology has been changed. They are now the classics of Cuba.”

Cardenas came to Victoria in 2010, with no particular interest in music at the time. Overwhelmed by the constant struggle of making a living as a musician in Cuba, he simply wanted a change. “You get burnt out,” he said.

Cardenas quickly made a home for himself among the top jazz players in Victoria, after spending a year learning how to speak two languages — English, and the unique verbiage of jazz in Canada. “At some point, I started jamming, and people would encourage me, saying: ‘Why don’t you play more? Where have you been?’ I didn’t expect to receive so much support from the Victoria music community so quickly. It was really impressive, the idea of contributing to the growth of the cultural life in the area.”

He is now one of the hubs around which the Cuban music community in Victoria rotates, and a mentor to younger Cuban musicians in the city. He’s combining international talents based in Vancouver, Victoria and Salt Spring Island for his performance Friday night, including singers Laura Deviato, Michel Rivero and Rafael Duvergel, bassist Rob Johnson and percussionists Jose Sanchez, Hector Ramos and Olimpo Ortega.

Cardenas will occupy his usual spot, behind the piano, serving as the musical director of an event he could never have imagined organizing upon his arrival in Victoria 11 years ago.

“For me, it’s always important to have all these different musical points of view, so we can all bring different flavours,” Cardenas said. “I love that, even though it’s Cuban music, we can include people from other nationalities. All I need is them to appreciate the music.”

It’s more about the spirit of the performance, Cardenas said, than the heritage of each performer.

“The Buena Vista Social Club is full of characters — they are impossible to imitate. When I hear Michel [Rivero] sing, I’m not thinking about Ibrahim Ferrer at the moment. But I realize that his voice matches. I think I have done that unconsciously. My first idea was to reproduce the feel. But I see that it is possible to go further, and create those moments where people can relate to what is happening to the original interpreter, which is even better.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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