Cuban live sounds, dizzying dance routines and a heartthrob singer in a white suit – objectively, the ingredients of Havana Rumba sound promising and should be able to push the same buttons as the widely successful Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon in the 90s. The show has stellar dancers and good musical performers but unfortunately doesn’t add up to much more than the sum of its parts. At the Udderbelly Festival.
Cuban live sounds, stories of old cars, dizzying dance routines and a heartthrob singer in a white suit – objectively, the ingredients of Havana Rumba sound promising and should be able to push the same buttons as the widely successful Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon in the 90s about a group of ageing performers from Havana taking over the world by storm. The show has stellar dancers and good musical performers but unfortunately doesn’t add up to much more than the sum of its parts.
Imagine you’re walking the dilapidated streets of Havana, the Cuban heat weighs down on you and suddenly, from afar, you hear noises: someone plucking on a guitar and these enchanting drums! Drawn in by the melody and the cigar smoke wafting past you walk on, and when you turn the corner you see two stunning women bickering over who gets to dance with the handsome fellow in the Chevrolet. This is roughly the creative idea behind Havana Rumba and the mindset you’ll need to enjoy it.
Playing out as a kind of street scenario, the six dancers act as an intermediary between band and audience, which (over and over again) is encouraged to become part of the show. There’s even a shot of rum to get you in the mood! The band is lined up against a backdrop of big posters with stereotypical Cuban scenes that could very well be out of some travel guide.
Hovering awkwardly between live concert and dance revue, Havana Rumba tries extremely hard to establish a connection to Buena Vista, for example by bringing in one of the original dancers of the club or by featuring the famous song “Chan Chan”. Random scenes of dance-off street fights and girls wooing for boys’ attention (or vice versa) alternate with renditions of 1950s cha-cha-cha routines. There are stunning dance numbers in there: when legendary dancer Eric Turro, known to connoisseurs of the scene as “The Hurricane of the Caribbean” (and who looks like he is at least in his sixties) takes on three ladies on the dance floor simultaneously being a prime example. The dexterity of the dance and the precision is certainly breath-taking.
However, despite its musical skilfulness, the show remains an oddly soulless succession of music and dance numbers that are performed flawlessly but are neither captivating nor enchanting. The lighting design is, at points, really effective, but generally too shy to actively nourish the mood of the scenes.
There are occasional glimpses of what this hour-long format could have been, especially in the very end when singer Juventino ‘El Chico Divino’ Mendoza tells the story about his passport arriving only 15 minutes before having to leave for the airport. “When you find joy and freedom in a dance – this is rumba”, he adds in an emotive voice. And as charming as the leading man with his boyish good looks might be, in words or music he is not a convincing storyteller and ultimately fails to engage in a meaningful way.
The astonishing thing about the Buena Vista documentary by Wim Wenders was that it showed a slice of Cuban life the audience could truly empathise with. It was about the extraordinary lives of talented musicians and about how the music helped them cope with the hardship of a restrictive regime. Music and life were inextricably interwoven with each other and this is what made it touching and managed to open the world’s ears to a style of music that had been utterly forgotten about. There is nothing left of that fascination in Havana Rumba.
Advertised as being suitable for all ages, I had two little children sitting right in front of me: half an hour in, they started to become bored with the charming lilt of the front man and the continuous hip-shaking playing out in front of them. And who can blame them? By nature, many of the rumba numbers are way too sexual for younger audiences, sometimes, in the case of a Raggaeton beach routine, even uncomfortably so. What’s more, the moments that are supposed to be seductive and sensual look a bit too laboured, but the performers ease into it after awhile and so does the audience. In fact, it has to be said that for all its superficial shine, the audience seemed to love it nonetheless, as was proven by the standing ovations and the continuous clapping throughout.
It certainly is to the show’s credit that it allows you to step away from the sorry excuse for a summer that London is offering at the moment into an atmosphere that promises to be sizzling rather than drizzling. But having a Mojito in a salsa bar would probably have the same effect – you’ll enjoy it while it lasts but there’s nothing you’ll take home with you.