“Keys. Phones… Please, place all metal items in the tray.” A steady stream of concert goers hustle their way through metal detectors at the entrance of the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall. All week we had witnessed signs of summer’s impending demise, and Saturday evening was no exception. The afternoon downpour had soured itself into just a few stinging droplets, riding a breeze not nearly as cool as it was aggressive. Our tickets were stamped “September 21st”, but in this way it was already October in Miami.
“Keys… Phones…” Right! The task at hand. I pat my sides and check the pockets of my jeans: nothing but a thin wad of cash, one yellow guitar pick, and a Bic lighter. Hearing the electric chirp of folks getting wanded a few feet ahead, some vestigial tension registered dimly around my shoulders. Scanning my future fellow audience members, I notice some people are really dressed up tonight.
“Sir, Keys? Phone?” As the security officer held out the tray, both she and I were caught by the realization that I didn’t have either. I have been doing this thing lately where I leave my phone at home whenever possible. It’s a reliable way to experience a sense of illicit exhilaration. Like reentering a domain of freedom in which anything can happen. Or maybe I’m just asking for trouble. Placing the lighter in the tray, I stepped through the detector and received an austere nod of admittance from the man with the wand.
Inside the Knight Concert Hall the mood was markedly different. Rain, traffic and tickets all behind us. I could sense the collected relief of two thousand people switching over to party mode. The place was packed. Bartenders and ushers worked swiftly to make sure that everyone got their drinks and found their seats. Paola and I found ours among the middle rows of the orchestra section. We had good seats, although there really isn’t a bad seat in the Knight Hall. Even the balcony seats are close to the action, and the sound is tuned so everyone can hear the music loud and clear.
Inside the auditorium, the stage was set up with instruments but no people. Elegant blue and magenta lights illuminated the backline: a keyboard on the far right, large drum kit in the center, congas and other Latin percussion instruments off to the left. I remember thinking we were about to witness a bizarre social experiment to see how much Rumba people could be exposed to and still remain seated.
The lights dimmed and the show’s opening performers stepped out onto the stage. Duende Camaron is a brilliant guitar and vocal duo comprised of two brothers: Mario and Jose Oretea. Originally from Bolivia, Duende Camaron blends flamenco guitar and vocal styles with Latin pop and elements of their native Andes culture. Guitarist Mario Oretea displayed a deep lexicon of virtuosic flamenco guitar sounds, effortlessly weaving spellbinding patterns of melody and polyphony over Jose Oretea’s charged drum-like rasgueados. Both brothers sang, often together. Jose also doused the ancient rattle snake rhythms of his guitar with tall, trenchant chords. At times it was hard to believe there were only two musicians onstage. Striking the last chord of their final song, Duende Camaron drew big cheers from the audience.
After a brief intermission, the lights dimmed and the audience once again fixed their attention on the stage. Four men walked out and took up positions in the rhythm section: Quentin Boursy (drums), Thomas James Portel (Bass), Juan Vicente (Keys), and Rodolpho Fidel Pacheco Jimenez (Latin Percussion).
As the audience politely applauded, a voice announced: “Please welcome Nicolas Reyes and Tonnino Baliardo: the Gipsy Kings!” The audience began cheering as Reyes and Baliardo, the two founding members of the group, emerged from the wings accompanied by a trio of rhythm guitarists (George Reyes, Yohan Reyes, and Cosso Baliardo), and vocalist Samé Rey.
Then, like feeding a crisp five dollar bill into a digital juke box, the Gipsy Kings opened the flood gates. The audience was immediately enchanted by the group’s signature blend of roiling Flamenco fire and undeniable salsa grooves. Heads started bobbing. Shoulders started twisting. Hands started clapping. I remember thinking it was downright cruel to expect people to remain seated during such an extraordinary display of rhythmic intensity.
Nicolas Reyes belted out his Gitano melodies with the same big voice he has used for over 30 years on classic recordings like the Gipsy Kings 1988 self-titled record. When Reyes would pause between vocal lines, Tonnino Baliardo’s guitar would strike with bold picados descending like tonal lightning across the entire range of his instrument. All this was happening while the trio of rhythm guitarists combined with the drummers to generate a tornado of strings whirling over a body-rocking bass.
While the intensity was remarkable, the performance offered more than bluster and bravado. Early in the show – the second or third song – the instrumentalists gracefully thinned out until it was just Nicolas Reyes clapping a simple rhythm. His bandmates onstage joined in and soon the whole audience followed, everyone clapping in communal fashion. Reyes looked up, raising his head and shoulders and on the very next beat all 2000 people stopped. Silence. Witness a magical moment. Even the lights froze momentarily in a way where the house was half-lit. The audience and the band could all see each other. Reyes brought his hands together under his chin and bowed his head like a holy man. Everyone breathed in.
And then, heralded by the slightest guitar intro from Tonnino, the Gipsy Kings dove headfirst into one of their biggest hits: “Djobi Djoba”. About two thirds of the crowd immediately leapt to their feet and began dancing. In the front rows, holdouts strained to remain politely seated. In the back and balconies it was already game over. Side aisles filled up with dancers. Hands raised above their shoulders, the people clapped and stomped along to the sophisticated rhythms. I’m not really able to provide accurate details of what happened beyond this point in the evening. The mood was dreamlike as the group rendered all their most well-known songs including “Bem Bem Maria” and their famous reinterpretation of “Hotel California”.
One highlight that stands out in my memory is an extended song wherein several of the younger band members began to take turns singing. We listened to the torch as it passed from the older musicians to the younger generation. The most skilled of the young singers was undoubtedly Samé Rey. Rey expertly contorted his voice into ornate microtonal melodies, each line concluding with a note held so long and loud the audience whooped in approval.
Later in the show, percussionist Rodolpho Fidel Pacheco Jimenez took center stage for a raucously virtuosic djembe solo. The excitement built and built with each song, the momentum compounding the sense of duende, right through the introductory guitar strains of “Bamboleo”. Upon hearing this, the crowd of dancers howled. Clearly we were near the end of the ride.
The entire audience, who had already been on their feet, cheered as the band took their bows and exited the stage only to reemerge moments later to chants of “Otra! Otra!” As an encore, the Kings performed their celebrated version of the Italian hit “Volare”. Afterward everyone left the stage except for Nicolas Reyes. He closed the show with an a cappella rendition of “My Way”; a sentimental ending to a masterful performance by a man who has publicly hinted at his eventual retirement.
As we shuffled out of the theater and back onto the streets, the whole city seemed different. A lone trumpeter on the corner of 13th and Biscayne collected tips from passers by to the tune of Camila Cabello’s “Havana”. A police car parked in the intersection, diverting traffic. Red and blue lights traded places across the uneven pavement. I remember thinking, what a world it is we live in, where such musicians exist.