Leonid Agutin, Russia’s “King of Pop,” enshrined in his native land as an “Honored,” performed a single concert in Old Havana’s Cathedral Plaza, at 4 p.m. Jan. 23. The event brought a touch of entertainment to this UNESCO World Heritage site, more commonly overrun by tourists, hustlers, beggars and cops.
In addition to his usual companions, the successful 41-year-old musician (his last CD sold more than 10 million copies), invited an all-star Cuban cast, most notably flute virtuoso Orlando Valle "Maraca," legendary singer Omara Portuondo, the prestigious Pancho Amat tres player, and Rene Toledo on guitar. In the course of the concert nearly 50 artists appeared on stage.
Days earlier, Leonid had shared his enthusiasm and anxiety with “Juventud Rebelde” (Rebel Youth: the Young Communist League’s official national newspaper).
“It has always been my dream, an idea I can’t get out of my mind,” he said, “to play in the only country in the world where all cultures — African, Spanish, Chinese, Arab — come together. It is a small island, but capable of producing some of the greatest music of the universe. My nerves are killing me.”
Of course the Russian King of Pop did survive the nearly two-hour concert, which despite limited promotion, attracted more than 1,000 fans.
The audience included a large community of his compatriots who, waving Russian flags, were the only people in Havana able to sing along with Leonid Agutin’s ballads, which some of them did from the balconies of the hard-currency criollo restaurants that line the edges of the Plaza. An official photojournalist joked about the choice of the site, half-religious and half-commercial. Perhaps the intention was to honor Leonid’s two passions: playing pool and collecting crosses.
The musician addressed the crowd in English and Russian, but one of the concert’s most memorable moments was when he sang in Spanish. He chose a song composed for him to debut in Cuba, titled Havana: “A seaside paradise that cannot compare… The love that I dreamed of, found at last…”
Eavesdropping on the crowd, it was obvious that for many Cubans his rendition brought to mind a similarly emotional moment from last Sept. 20, when the Colombian singerperformed before a million people in the Plaza of the Revolution. Juanes also sang a new composition written for Cuba, dedicated to reconciliation and a better future for a people divided between homeland and exile.
Like most official public events, the concert was free, compliments of Agutin’s producers and Cuba’s cultural authorities. Their objective was to use it as a focal point for a French documentary, “Havana Calling,” a film about Leonid’s fascination with Cuban music and Caribbean rhythms stemming from his discovery, first on the Internet and then in person in Paris, of the fabulous Cuban flautist Orlando Valle “Maraca.”
During the concert, Omara Portuondo, who once performed with the Buena Vista Social Club, mentioned that next month’s Havana International Book Fair will be dedicated to Russia. Opening the fair will be Russian Foreign Minister, who has confided to the press that Cuba belongs in a special place among Latin American nations. He is looking forward, he told reporters, to commemorating the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Moscow and Havana.
The popular perception is that this evening concert, in some way, marked a high point in Russian-Cuba exchanges that goes beyond the cultural to encompass economics and politics. On the day of the concert, the Television National News summed it up by citing the event as “a strong link in the chain” that unites Cuba and Russia, though the concert itself was not televised.
After the final applause, the audience, among whom were the directors of famous Cuban bands such as Klímax and Síntesis, left quickly without clamoring for an encore, unlike at other similar events. In general, the Cubans in the crowd seemed less captivated than the Russians, who clearly enjoyed Leonid’s Russian ballads as “cubanized” by Orlando Valle “Maraca.” As for the rest of the audience, their attention wandered from the stage to the usual colorful characters of the plaza who make a living posing for the tourists; impersonators of the Cuban singer Beny Moré (1919-1963) are a perennial favorite.
Within half an hour of the final note, Cathedral Plaza was left to the technicians as they dismantled the scaffolding and packed up the cameras, speakers, cables and cranes. Overseeing their work from his perch among the plaza’s columns and cafes, was the life-size statue of the Spanish Dancer Antonio Gades (1936-2004), who had asked that his remains rest in the land of the Cuban revolution.
Then, as is typical on the Island for the winter month of January, silently but suddenly night fell on Havana, without a single passer-by noticing the dramatic change in sound and lighting.