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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Afro-Cuban dance party

May 08, 2003|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

The Afro-Cuban All Stars turned their Royce Hall concert Tuesday into an usher's nightmare. The dazzling 17-member orchestra had the entire audience on its feet, with couples dancing in the aisles and on the balconies. By the end, with the house lights up, it felt as if a big party had broken out on a school night at UCLA's stately theater.

Normally it's frustrating to watch salsa bands in a concert setting because there's no place to dance, and ushers try to keep the aisles clear. But a good dance band makes you want to move, and under the skilled baton of Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, the All Stars make an irresistible dance band -- and much more.

Gonzalez, the man who rounded up all those old-timers for the nostalgic Buena Vista Social Club sessions, has now gathered a new group of astounding instrumentalists with a more forward-looking bent.

Dressed in a snazzy long coat and beret, Gonzalez established his band's jazz chops with the opening number, the bold instrumental suite "Tanga," by Mario Bauza and Chico O'Farrill.

Just when you thought you had seen all the world-class talent Cuba's new generation had to offer, Gonzalez introduced a mesmerizing 30-year-old pianist named David Alfaro. With a stunning technique that's precise, delicate and inhumanly fast, Alfaro drew rave applause for his solos.

The All Stars also featured a parade of vocalists: powerful newcomer Luis Frank Arias, charming septuagenarian Ignacio Carrillo and flashy ex-Van Van Pedro Calvo. The restless Gonzalez left the tradition-bound Buena Vista fold to focus on the future of Cuban music. He unveiled no surprises in this show, a veritable survey of the genre from rumba to timba. But with this kind of talent around him, he's bound to come up with something.

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