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Review: Juan De Marcos & The Afro-Cuban All Stars

By Cynthia Close, Burlington Writers Workshop

Juan De Marcos Gonzáles wasted little time with idle banter as he and his band of twelve stellar musicians took their places on the three-tiered risers on center stage and launched into their first set on this opening weekend of Burlington’s Discover Jazz Fest. The torrential downpour earlier in the evening didn’t dampen the spirits of the crowd as heads bobbed and shoulders swayed to the irresistible conga-infused beat.

Gonzáles joked a bit about his age, but his graying dreadlocks were the only thing hinting at the years he’d spent touring and recording with his band of Grammy-nominated Afro-Cuban All-Stars. His body exuded a joyful energy. He never stopped moving and the overflow was enough to inspire everyone in the theater. He was clearly the guiding force of the ensemble, but the message that he transmitted to them and they, in turn, gave to us was just “have fun.” From the looks on their smiling faces, the music seemed to come effortlessly, though the skill displayed was awesome.

A Grand piano anchored the stage on the left played by Marquitos “Greko” Crego. He had his back towards the audience and, rather than reading his music from printed paper sheets, he was using a digital display, like an iPod or something like it. Julito Diaz, Yoanny Pino and Yaure Muniz stood on the top riser playing trumpets and flugelhorns, while simultaneously creating a backdrop of dance moves reminiscent of Motown through the entire performance.

As lead singer, Emilio Suárez was an imposing figure. He’s been with the band for seven years, and he shared the main vocals with Juan de Marcos, who modestly conceded that the younger man was the true powerhouse when it came to voice.

At about the halfway point Gonzáles let the appreciative hometown crowd know he was “feeling the Bern.” Not surprising that he would express his admiration for our own, self-identified, “democratic socialist”. But politics was only alluded to, as the main theme of the music of the evening was LOVE. Love of family was first on his menu as Gonzáles proudly introduced his wife, fellow musician, percussionist and business partner of 38 years, Gliceria Abreu. She was dressed in a softly flowing white gown that seemed to float, encircling her and her husband as they kissed and danced across the front of the stage while the band swayed and played behind them.

But for my money, the real stars of the evening were his two daughters, Laura Lydia Gonzáles on clarinet and several other horned instruments I couldn’t identify, and Gliceria (named after her mom) Gonzáles on vibes, keyboard, and vocals. They had several opportunities to wow us with solo riffs, and they were duly impressive.

Rather than winding down, the evening seemed to wind up – as the rhythms of the Afro-Cuban All Stars and the encouragement of Juan de Marco Gonzáles brought the audience to our feet, dancing and clapping. I glanced up to the balcony, feeling like the whole theater had come throbbingly alive, grateful that we had braved the storm to dance back out into the now dry summer night.