Another event in the !Sí Cuba! Festival were free concerts at BAMcafé. I was going to go to both the Friday and Saturday night shows but ended up only seeing the show on Friday. When they say get there early they weren’t kidding – the venue fills up quickly. It’s used by both the neighborhood (Happy Hour is 4-8pm) and by those attending the show. Because of this the event was the most evenly spread out racially/ethnically than any show I’ve ever been to. But by the end of the set most of the neighborhood people were gone – which would be the blacks and whites – and the room was mostly Latino.
I got to BAMcafé about 7pm and, as I said, it was packed. No seats at the bar, every table taken, and all the floor space full of people enjoying the Happy Hour drinks and meals. Eventually a spot opened at the bar where I could stand and I had a salad and the chef’s mezze selection – hummus, tons of olives, red peppers (and I’m forgetting something) served with pita. All very good and filling. I also had the house sangria, which was also good. The space is a box theatre – you come up the escalator from the theatre lobby (the building also houses the Rose Cinema and the Howard Gilman Opera House) to the second level and there’s some couches and a small bar. You can’t see the kitchen – when you order, you’re given your receipt which you need to pick up your order at a small table off in the corner – no waiters. Across from the bar is a small gallery. The current exhibit is split between that gallery and one downstairs off the lobby. It is also part of the !Sí Cuba! Festival – I Am Cuban a selection of photographs by Helena de Bragança. The upstairs photos were of everyday people and Santeros and the downstairs photos were of dancers – all arms and legs outstretched and muscular – in locations outside of a studio or theatre.
The DJ (who plays during Happy Hour) and the sound engineer are off to the side in the back. They cannot see the stage. It’s a ridiculous set-up with only about a third of the board out from behind a wall. The engineer has to lean all the way over to see the entire stage and then lean back in to fix the knobs. I remember doing gigs where they asked me to sit backstage or to set up the speakers behind walls. I’m thankful that not all places treat sound as an afterthought. There were small speakers all along the wall but the back speakers weren’t on. It was difficult for me to hear through all the leftovers from Happy Hour chatter.
The space is beautiful. There’s an arcade effect – steel lit arches with corrugated steel and light installations in the floor to ceiling windows.
The Pedrito Martinez Group was hot. The Cuban born Martinez has played congas for Paquito D’Rivera, Sting, Springsteen, Taj Mahal, and Eddie Palmieri among many others. He’s also been featured in shows like Oz and Third Watch and movies like Piñero. The Latin Jazz band includes percussionist Jhair Sala (Peru), bassist Alvaro Benavides (Venezuela), keyboardist Axel Tosca Laugart (Havana), and Araicne Trujillo (Havana). The group is now based at Guantanamera, a restaurant in Manhattan.
Once the band started playing the dance floor filled up and it never emptied. The music was mostly sung in Spanish but there were a few songs in English. It is the type of music that makes your ass move and I was dancing in place back at the bar and wished I’d had a partner to dance with me up front.
Some of the songs sounded very familiar to me – I don’t know if they were older songs or if it’s just that this type of music brings up all sorts of childhood memories for me. But that’s not important. What is important is that this is a band you should see and let loose and dance.
By Carene Lydia Lopez