Its back story can't compare to Ibrahim Ferrer's, but more than a decade before the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon made traditional Afro-Cuban music the next big thing, the Bay Area group Conjunto Cespedes was playing the best trad Cuban repertoire you could hear north of Miami. The band mixes standards by Beny More, Elio Reve, and Celina Gonzalez with strong original tunes and performs them all with an infectious energy, injecting terse rumba and brassy son with the same elegance and modernist flair. On its most recent album, Flores (Xenophile, 1998), the dense layers of percussion, sharp four-piece brass section, and the rock-steady piano and tres of the group's primary composer, Guillermo Cespedes, are a formidable blend, even if the solos aren't always up to snuff. But powerful singer Gladys "Bobi" Cespedes (Guillermo's aunt) elevates the group from jukebox to genuine artistic force: her heavy mahogany voice brings to mind Celia Cruz's instrument--without the declining range the salsa queen has suffered with age. She improvises on melodies and rhythms with thunderous force and gives the irresistible grooves a soulful center. Saturday, 7:30 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 773-728-6000.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Irene Young.