The significance of the moment may have been lost on those caught up in the glorious sounds of Maraca at the Napa Valley Opera House last week.
It was only a few years ago that a wealth of Cuban artists were denied performance visas for appearances in the United States.
We experienced that artistic loss when a return engagement by members of the renowned Buena Vista Social Club were turned down for a tour that would have brought them back to the Robert Mondavi Summer Music Festival, where they had twice performed a decade ago.
Well, the repressive clampdown on Cuban artists by the George W. Bush administration seems to have disappeared now that there’s a new chief in the White House.
Thirteen Cuba-born musicians flew from Havana to Miami early last week, hopped a plane to Los Angeles and then drove up to Napa to perform at the Napa Valley Opera House Tuesday night.
Due to a late flight and missing personal luggage, they had to leave one member of the group in L.A. to sort things out for the rest of their tour.
They arrived in Napa 55 minutes before they were due to take the Opera House stage.
Hungry and tired, the dozen members of Maraca still managed to do a sound check and start the show only about a half hour late.
Nevertheless, bandleader Orlando “Maraca” Valle and his accomplished ensemble turned in a rousing two-and-a-half-hour performance that had everyone in the house — teens to octogenarians — chanting and dancing to the all-consuming Latin beat.
Flutist, pianist, composer and arranger Orlando Valle was a child prodigy. He wrote his first song at age 10.
After completing his formal studies in Havana, he started his professional career at age 16 as flutist in the group of the late Cuban pianist Emiliano Salvador.
Not long after, he joined the legendary Cuban group Irakere as flutist, keyboard player and arranger, where he remained for six years.
Two decades ago, the 44-year-old musician decided to embark on his own career as a soloist and music producer.
He has fronted a couple of groups and helped produce many projects of others, contributing with compositions and arrangements of his own for Cape Verdian singer Cesaria Evora’s “Café Atlantico” and the Afro-Cuban Jazz Project.
Maraca’s original style of fusing jazz improvisations with his Afro-Cuban roots — mambo, danzon, cha-cha-cha, rhumba, son and timba — has made his sound accessible worldwide, and hailed as the epitome of Cuban popular dance music and Afro-Cuban jazz.
As usual, he’s surrounded by a small army of top-drawer musicians. Pianist Andy Rubal, who turned 23 over the weekend, is as nimble-fingered on the salsa repertoire as he is with Afro-Cuban jazz tunes.
He reminded this audience member of the late Ruben Gonzalez, a formidable member of that incredible Buena Vista Social Club ensemble.
A serious jazz musician, Rubal also has a lot of fun serving up the all-important chords for the salsa numbers.
Percussionists Ivan Llanes and Rafael Valiente get into the groove with bassist Yosmel Montejo (who, at times, plays one of the tiniest electric basses I’ve seen) to pump up the antics of animated vocalists/dancers Lester Ciarreta and Alexei Sanchez.
Then there’s the rousing horn section — trumpeters Josiel Perez and Eduardo Martinez, trombonist Ariel Perez and saxmen Alfred Thompson and Andres Perez — trading off solos with bandleader Valle.
Without a doubt, Orlando Valle is the best jazz flutist we’ve heard live since the Herbie Mann days.
Valle’s talents have been widely recognized since his 2003 recording, “Tremenda Rumba,” was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Salsa Album category.
His nomination that year made Valle the youngest Cuban artist ever nominated by the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, occurring during a difficult period in Cuba-U.S. relations.
The repertoire the other evening ranged from sizzling salsa to a mambo paying tribute to the 1950s Benny Moré songbook, from flute-and-keyboard-forward danzon to righteous Afro-Cuban jazz.
Maraca is a hot ticket. Too bad the venue was only about half full. But I bet the staff would be posting sold-out signs if the ensemble returned any time soon.
I’m sure word-of-mouth spread by those at last Tuesday’s delightful, delirious dance party would result in a packed house.
We can only hope Maraca will return, now that they know even our government recognizes their talents.