A call for shouts and screams from the Cubans helping to pack the Conga Room to overflow Friday night came up a bit weak, which was actually a positive sign for Willy Chirino: The records he’s made over his 26-year career appeal to a far wider audience than just emigres and habitues of Miami.
Chirino’s appeal lies in his romantic twist on a host of traditional Cuban styles, each of which he produces with an engaging smile and a suave sashay. There’s a pop performer lurking in there as well, though, and when he gives in, as he did on part of the opener “Amigo de la Luna” and a bit of a very-dated disco, he weakens his appeal on both dramatic and musical levels. He’s at his best updating Cuban dance music styles and allowing the rhythm to blossom rather than locking in and holding steady.
Dressed conservatively — he in a brown suit with the band in black — Chirino favors a hand on the stomach and a shimmy as he performs, his voice always falling easy on the ears and the band resourceful and tight. Although he performed only one number from his recent Sony Discos CD, “Cuba Libre,” Chirino and his band excelled on percussion-heavy numbers such as “Rumbera” that relayed his connection to the Cuban styles that have been homogenized over the years and thrown together under the dubious catch-all term “salsa.” At his best, Chirino displays a fine mixture of classic and contemporary.
His appeal, however, far exceeded the capacity of the Conga Room, which needs to examine its admissions policy. It’s great that Latin music has so quickly developed a Los Angeles home at the Conga Room — despite wallet-gouging cover charges — but management needs to ensure that patrons can regain immediate access to the showroom after leaving for fresh air, a smoke or a visit to the restroom.