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At 87 years young, the legendary Cuban Diva of the Buena Vista Social Club, Omara Portuondo, brought gasps of delight, then rapturous applause, just by walking out on the stage in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday night. She graciously acknowledged the love in the room then continued with her rendition of beloved classic "Veinte Años," backed by just a pianist.
She was part of a spectacular concert that was the kick-off celebration for an unprecedented display of Cuban multi-disciplinary arts and culture currently underway at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts called Artes de Cuba: From the Island to the World.
The first of its kind in the U.S., more than 400 Cuban and Cuban-American artists will be participating in an extraordinary showcase of music, dance, fashion, theatre, film, visual arts and more, from May 8 - 20.
Kennedy Center staff began coordinating the event three years ago during President Obama's historic overtures to the Cuban government and people. But with the Trump administration's reversal of Obama's Cuba policy, they faced travel restrictions and a sharply reduced staff at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. With 200 visas yet to process, they were determined not to let politics get in the way, and routed the artists through Mexico.
Opening night was a celebration in which art trumped politics and was dotted with references to the longstanding musical relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.
Four members of the Yosvany Terry Quintet started the evening by calling out to the Yoruban spirits with an evocative a cappella version of Terry's composition, Laroko, in the Yoruba language – a language deeply rooted on the island by African slaves – performed against a backdrop featuring projected images of Cuba's natural beauty.
The classical guitar is part of the Cuban musical landscape thanks to internationally renowned composer and performer Leo Brouwer. Sitting in front of a projected quote from Brouwer, classical guitarist Alí Arango paid tribute to that legacy with a beautiful, complex and masterfully executed performance of "La Toccata De Pasquini" from the composer's Sonata for solo guitar.
Then, the fun began. A flutist donning a red jacket and black shiny pants playfully made his way down the aisles, enchanting various audience members along the way with a solo introduction of the elegant danzón, "Almendra." As he hit the stage, the 12-piece Orquesta Miguel Faílde launched into the full charanga classic with violins, upright bass, timbales, keyboard, conga, trumpet, sax and soulful vocals.
Next came a gorgeous video interlude highlighting the festival's visual arts, images that featured many of the top visual artists from the island as well as Cuban Americans creating work that explores their roots.
A pregnant pause in an otherwise seamless presentation turned serendipitous with the return of the full Yosvany Terry Quintet. Looking out onto the full house, Yosvany spoke the words that struck the note of the celebratory evening: "Tonight is very special. We are participating in something historical. For the first time both countries that are neighbors ... come together finally as a family."
The excitement skyrocketed as powerhouse vocalist Aymée Nuviola was introduced as the "voice of a generation."
"It's very important for me to be here tonight, representing my music, my country, my God and my people," Nuviola said. "It's a great moment!" The big-voiced and vibrant performer owned the stage – radiant in her bright yellow, high-slitted skirt/hot pant outfit and large Afro, and breaking into Afro-Cuban dance moves. In a nod of respect to everyone's favorite singer, Celia Cruz, Nuviola belted out a song associated with Cruz,"Bembe Colorá," engaging the audience in a call and response.
Portuondo's performance began on a different note, with her coyly singing from the wings of the stage then walking out resplendent in a white and pink guayabera-style dress with a huge, pink bow on her headband. Being playful and spirited, a shake of the hips brought cheers of delight as she crooned another classic, "Quizas, Quizas, Quizas." The selection was another music history reference, this time to Nat King Cole's 1958 album Cole Español, partly recorded in Cuba.
Nuviola then took to the piano for a gorgeous duet with Portuondo for another classic, "Tres Palabras." There was a stunning interplay between them, as they wrapped their blended harmonies around each other's.
"I thought that they represented the past and present of Cuba," said Felix Sanchez, chairman and co-founder of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, after the show. "It was familiar, it was romantic and it was the future. It brought so many elements to the table."
Cuban music and art hasn't been entirely shut off from the U.S. despite the six-decade-long economic embargo. The opening night and the entire two-week run of the Kennedy Center's Artes de Cuba is a reminder of the artistic riches that are just 90 miles away from the U.S.