Cuba’s Ernesto Oviedo makes U.S. debut in Berkeley


This article by Andrew Gilbert appeared in

Oakland percussion master John Santos has spent the past three decades introducing Bay Area audiences to Caribbean musical treasures, but he’s got something unprecedented in store for Berkeley this weekend.

Havana’s Ernesto Oviedo, the 77-year-old maestro of boleros, makes his U.S. debut under his own name at an intimate sit-down concert Sunday at La Casa de Cultura Brazilian, 1901 San Pablo Ave., accompanied by a top-shelf Bay Area ensemble featuring Santos, Marco Diaz on piano and trumpet, bassist Saul Sierra, guitarist Jose Roberto, saxophonist/flutist Melecio Magdaluyo, and percussionist Javier Navarrette.

Santos featured Oviedo last month at a sold-out SFJAZZ Center performance by his Filosofía Caribeña project, an unexpected addition to a program already brimming with brilliant artists. Although unknown to the vast majority of the audience, he earned a rapturous standing ovation with his soul-bearing renditions of the Latin American standards “Alma Mia” and “Convergencia” (performed as a duo with Diaz).

“He brought the house down,” Santos says. “He was the perfect addition to the program, representing the elders. His depth of knowledge is really exceptional. He knew both the composer and lyricist of ‘Convergencia’ personally. It’s a tricky song. Every bar is a new chord, and he makes it sound effortless.”

Ernesto’s father was the pioneering tres master composer Isaac Oviedo, an important voice in the golden age of son, and his brother is Papi Oviedo, who tours with the Buena Vista Social Club and vocalist Omara Portuondo. He’s also well versed in son, but Ernesto made his mark as a preeminent interpreter of romantic boleros, the heart-on-sleeve ballads honed to poetic perfection in Havana and Mexico City and beloved across Latin America. Santos first met Oviedo, who is best known as a long-time member of the legendary Orquesta Estrellas Cubanas, on a trip to the island in 1990.

“He’s like my Cuban father,” Santos says. “He opened his home and family to me. I got to tour with him a little bit in Germany about 10 years ago, but he had never been to the United States before. I found out he was coming to Miami to visit his daughter, who he hadn’t seen in 35 years. I have a student who knows Ernesto through me, and he offered to get him a plane ticket out here. I knew I had to incorporate him into the Filosofía Caribeña show, but it was too late to get him into the publicity.”

The day before the SFJAZZ show, Santos brought Oviedo and his band into the studio. With no recordings available in the US and precious few under his own name in Cuba, Oviedo is ripe for discovery and now Santos is planning to release an album featuring the elegant singer.

“We’re hoping to bring him back, and do a concert that promotes the album,” Santos says. “Like a lot of the musicians in the Buena Vista Social Club, Ernesto has been on the quiet side. He’s worked all these years, but always as one of the singers in a group and never led his band. I think it’s time that changed.”

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