Amid US-Cuban tensions over the fate of Elian Gonzalez, the scene at New York's Beacon Theater in February brought Americans and Cubans together in a veritable lovefest. The Cubans were the Buena Vista Social Club, folk musicians rediscovered by American producer and guitarist Ry Cooder and the subject of Wim Wenders' eponymous documentary. The Americans made up the audience, so devoted that midway through the concert they joined the band in a sing-along rendition of "Somewhere over the Rainbow."
And the message was all about the music, as LD Michael Ledesma discovered working with the band. "When Buena Vista started doing their first engagements in the US, they had a lighting design that was one page, without really enough instruments to light everybody, even the principals," says the LD.
Enter Jerry Wortman, a tour manager who recognized the need for a lighting design, and had worked with Ledesma on shows for Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon. The LD joined the tour in southern California. "That's where I ended up bringing in Obie, who supplied us with some of the new Coemar lights," says the LD. "I also used the in-house systems [at Cerritos Center and Royce Hall] which already had state-of-the-art technology."
But the LD soon found out that state-of-the-art wasn't exactly the look for the band, fronted by pianist Ruben Gonzalez and vocalists Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo, whose previous heydays were in the pre-Castro 50s. "They wanted it to be more of what it would have been like back then: simple, with no chance of high-tech lighting upstaging the performances."
Ledesma came up with a design that would use purely conventional lighting, an idea that suited the band, but was a bit of a challenge for an LD whose recent high-tech clients have included Gloria Estefan and Megadeth. "I hadn't done a fully conventional system for I don't know how many years," he laughs.
Using about 200 instruments, a 90-channel Celco Gold console, and a cyc, Ledesma created a new lighting design that came together at Boston's Orpheum Theatre with support from local supplier Palico Lighting. See Factor was the lighting provider in New York and New Jersey, and the rest of the tour was supplied by local lighting companies throughout the US. After the New York shows, LD Jody Durham, known for lighting Pat Metheny, took over the remainder of the tour, which played until the end of February.
For Ledesma, making the conventional system work required a thorough appreciation of the music. "Finding all the nuances that make the music happen was the most challenging because not only are there the soloists, but they feature the bass player, the horns, the percussion players, and this is all part of the feel," says the LD, who used a 1,200W followspot on the back of the rig to highlight featured musicians. "It was great to have all those lekos on hand because I was able to point the audience to where the musical action was happening. I think that was most challenging: to get inside the music and be able to light these people so the audience could share in the feeling."