And so, on the Friday, after four virus-stricken days of what I can only assume was some sort of divine punishment for attempting to bore the arses off my readers, I finally showed up for work. It was then that I realised that this had been the first week in over six months where being off sick wouldn’t have caused huge deadline problems. What an impressively organised immune system I must have.
I leave the office at 16:00, and head straight for the railway station, where I hook up with K. A pleasant journey ensues, down in the “quiet zone” at the far end of the train (it’s always worth making the extra journey down to the end of Platform 5). Arriving at St. Pancras station, we are surprised to find ourselves in a brand new building which has been attached to the end of the original Victorian structure (now closed). All this unexpected newness is most disorientating. We jump into a taxi and head off for the newly opened Malmaison hotel in Farringdon (on Charterhouse Square, near Smithfield market). Yes, it’s another of those dreaded “boutique hotels”– but, well, look: we had recently stayed in the Birmingham Malmaison and enjoyed it a lot, and our “free bed in Brixton” mates were away for the weekend, and K had found a special weekend deal, and, and, and… So OK, we never learn. But please allow us our materialistic delusions; for they bring us great happiness. Nirvana through shallowness, remember?
Anyway, the hotel is suitably well-appointed (all low-lit clear surfaces in regulation dark brown), the staff are charming (at the reception desk, a sewing kit is procured within seconds) and the room is delightful (ooh, jasmine and geranium body wash!). We unpack and head straight out again, reaching the Royal Festival Hall in good time. Out of the office at four; sipping a G&T at the RFH by ten past seven. This is all going so smoothly! We should do this more often!
The support act is a guitarist and singer from Cadiz called Javier Ruibal, who performs with a second guitarist and a young percussionist. Together, they deliver a stunning set – full of energy, spirit and skill, and far in excess of anything which we might have imagined from a support act.
Another G&T later, and we are back in our seats (fifth row, dead centre, level with the stage) for Omara Portuondo, the 73-year old Cuban singer who achieved global recognition on the strength of the Buena Vista Social Club project. With the death last year of both Ruben Gonzales and Compay Segundo, only two of the film’s big names are still with us (the other being the incomparable Ibrahim Ferrer); we had therefore booked seats as soon as we found out about them, keen to experience at least one of the remaining performers while there was still a chance.
As Omara is helped onto the stage from the wings, her physical frailty is immediately evident. The moment that she reaches centre stage, spotlights upon her, all traces of that frailty disappear. The moment that she opens her mouth for the first song, both K and I burst into tears.
(Honestly, what are we like? A generation ago, we might just as easily have been swooning over Shirley Bassey or Dorothy Squires. “Shiz a fookin STAR, intshi? Shiz built erself up from NOOTHING, and NOOTHING can take that away from er now; NOOTHING!“)
Omara and her fifteen(?) piece Cuban band (containing such great musicians as the nattily togged Papa Oviedo, master of the “tres” guitar) proceed to thrill and delight us for the next hour and three quarters. During some of the better known dance numbers, various members of the audience spontaneously leap out of their seats and start dancing in front of the stage – prompting K to hiss in my ear: “They’ve obviously all been to their salsa classes on Friday nights, then.” As indeed they probably have; but oh, how wonderful it must be to be able to dance with the skill that the best of them are displaying. (My own skill levels begin with sweaty pogoing, end with hands-in-the-air raving, and are probably best confined to wedding discos and dodgy podiums in provincial gay clubs on school nights.)
During one of the massed dancing sessions, a member of the audience hands Omara a large bouquet of cut flowers. With all the excitable glee of a slightly gawky teenager, she waves the bouquet above her head, showing it off to the rest of us like a trophy, the years visibly slipping away. (Indeed, she waves it around so vigorously that she manages to knock her microphone off its stand, sending it tumbling to the floor.) Throughout the show, her effusive character adds a pleasing degree of mild chaos to the proceedings. At the end of some of her livelier numbers, after the band have finished playing, she will keep the chorus going, acapella style – then bringing the rest of us in, singing and clapping along, building us up in volume – then turning and motioning to her band to join in for a spontaneous reprise. At the end of the show, we can see her at the edge of the stage, almost in the wings, refusing to leave until she can bring the band back on for two more numbers. We see her remonstrating with officials, pleading, insisting, refusing to take no for an answer, and finally getting her own way. A world class act. Music just doesn’t get better than this.
After the show, I pick up a text from David. He’s at the Two Brewers (a gay pub in Clapham with a dancefloor and a late licence) and we’re welcome to join him there. I put the suggestion to K; he is not keen. “Going to the Two Brewers after Omara Portuondo would be like finishing a gourmet meal with a Cornetto“, he declares, not inaccurately. Instead, we head back to the hotel bar for a couple of quiet beers (and, in my case, a nice Cuban cigar; well, it only seems fitting). Tomorrow is Art Day; we need clear heads and a reasonably early start.