Buena Vista Social Club - Biography
This collaborative musical project resurrected the classic son music of pre-revolutionary Cuba and launched a worldwide phenomenon. Featuring an all-star cast of veteran Cuban musicians, the Buena Vista Social Club reprised compelling Afro-Cuban standards with their eponymous release, Buena Vista Social Club, in 1997. It captured the imagination of millions as interest and sales steadily rose. It now stands as the biggest selling world music (non-English, non-pop) release in the history of recorded music.
The making of the recording is a great story of happenstance and serendipity. Nick Gold of World Circuit Records in the UK planned to make a recording with his star African musician Ali Farka Touré and American guitar hero Ry Cooder in Cuba. The album was to be a follow up to their hugely successful Grammy winning Talking Timbuktu (1994 Hannibal/World Circuit). Ultimately, Touré didn’t make it to Cuba and Gold was stuck in Cuba with Cooder ready to record. So, they turned to Juan de Marcos González, tres guitar player and director of the Cuban traditional group Sierra Maestra, who knew Gold from the Dundunbanza (World Circuit) recording they did.
With a budget and time booked at the Egrem recording studios in Havana, a fabled space which had been the RCA studios during Havana’s roaring fifties, Gold and Cooder enlisted González to round up musicians for a session. Sierra Maestra was a well respected group in Cuba dating to the seventies that sought to preserve and cultivate the traditional Cuban son, the root of all Cuban modern music and salsa. As a leader of that group González knew most of Cuba’s musicians and in particular had the respect of the elders of Cuban son.
Among the first musicians sought was pianist Rubén González, a prodigious talent who had played with cha cha cha creator Enrique Jorrín and Arsenio Rodriguez, the father of modern Cuban son and the godfather of salsa. For acoustic bass they got the best, Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez- from Cuba’s first family of bass and a nephew of the legendary Cachao who made his mark on the American side of the Cuban divide. Octogenarian Compay Segundo, one half of the legendary Duo Los Compadres joined on acoustic guitar and vocal. Also on guitar and vocals Eliades Ochoa, the leader of Santiago de Cuba’s Cuarteto Patria, agreed to participate.
For vocals they enlisted Omara Portuondo, a legendary performer since her days with Cuarteto D’Aida in the fifties and veteran Miguel “Puntillita” Licea, a star from that same era. Through chance encounter Ibrahim Ferrer reluctantly agreed to come out of retirement and lend his supple voice to the session. At the time Ferrer was retired and shining shoes but in his prime had sung with Cuba’s most loved singer, Beny Moré. With Barbarito Torres on laoud guitar and Manuel “El Guajiro” Mirabal on trumpet the session was taking shape. Producer Cooder was poised to chime in on guitar and mandolin and his son Joachim Cooder joined on drums and percussion. González took on the role of vocal conductor and they opened the classic Cuban songbook and began to play.
It was March 1996 and the session at the aging wood-paneled studio in the heart of Havana seemed to conjure the spirits of all the Cuban greats who had recorded there. The producers were pleased with the stellar musicianship and elated at the vocal performances by the mostly geriatric crew. Cooder, long familiar with Latin and Cuban music, worked his electric guitar in with ease. The sessions went smoothly because some of the musicians had just recorded the Afro-Cuban All Stars under the direction of Juan de Marcos González. They also had time to record a solo album by Rubén González as well.
Back in the UK Gold, a long time aficionado of Cuban music, knew he had something special. The only question remaining was what to call it and how to market it. Spurred by a conversation with Compay Segundo describing the musical ambience of Havana’s past they chose to name the project Buena Vista Social Club (an actual social club in the forties and fifties which suited the conscious nostalgia they were hoping to evoke). On Septemeber 16, 1997 World Ciruit records in association with Nonesuch and Elektra released three albums simultaneously; Buena Vista Social Club, A Toda Cuba Le Gusta by the Afro-Cuban All Stars, and Introducing…Rubén González.
At the time, Cuban popular dance bands and folkloric groups were regularly touring the US and records produced in Cuba were working their way into the American market for the first time in the post-revolution era. Buena Vista Social Club struck a chord with the public who responded to both the quality of music and the exotic mystery it evoked. An elegant and percussive music played by dapper elders from a land of big old American automobiles and dilapidated colonial buildings, there was nothing new in the music and that was precisely its appeal. Like a newly discovered wing of a museum, scores of listeners adored the Buena Vista Social Club and eagerly spread word.
The album starts with Compay Segundo singing his catchy “Chan Chan” followed by the two superb voices of Ferrer and Ochoa singing “El Cuarto de Tula,” which kicks into a higher gear and sports some great guitar. The range of classic Cuban forms includes a couple classic boleros, the exquisite “Dos Gardenias” sung by Ferrer and “Viente Años.” Great songs, top-notch musicianship, tasty solos (including Cooder on guitar) and a superb production that captures the live reverberations that graced the hallowed Egrem studios, combine to make for an undeniably rare recording. Even if one does not understand the language, the emotions are so clearly conveyed that they seem palpable.
Record sales were not that impressive at the start, but slowly began to build. The record could be heard in countless cafés and restaurants throughout Europe and the Americas in 1998. Mainstream media began to catch on and a high profile show at New York’s famous Carnegie Hall on July 1, 1998 launched them into orbit. Organized with little lead time and complicated by the fact that many of the original musicians had their own groups or other projects they managed to get everybody onto that storied stage. What transpired was a concert for the ages that was greeted by an audience hysterical with joy. Performing in constantly varying configurations the old masters covered a whole range of the classic Cuban songbook with great skill, grace, and obvious delight. The entire concert was captured and released as the double disc Buena Vista Social Club at Carnegie Hall (2008 World Ciruit/Nonesuch).
A true watershed event for Cuban music in the United States, the concert transcended the difficult and complex history the two countries and cultures share. The elegant group of elders helped bridge the seemingly irreconcilable gap between those still residing on the island and the Cuban-American exile community. For that brief moment, as captured in the Buena Vista Social Club (1998 Artisan Entertainment) documentary film by Wim Wenders, politics was cast aside and all that mattered was music. The film documents the Carnegie Hall concert and a show in Holland and the studio sessions for the follow-up records by Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo. Wender’s film also has footage shot around the studio in central Havana that is remarkable for the absence of any modern sights or sounds. The film circulated widely and served to spur even deeper market penetration for the Buena Vista Social Club.
More than any other recording in Cuba’s influential and long musical history it is the artifice of the Buena Vista Social Club that marks the map for the masses. Perhaps out of jealousy (or confusion) Juan Formell of Los Van Van, post-revolutionary Cuba’s most popular dance band, accused the Buena Vista phenomenon of being “counter-revolutionary.” His point was that the Cuban music the world was consuming was from the cultural museum and that Cubans had moved on to develop challenging Afro-Cuban jazz traditions and compelling modern dance bands that represent a serious musical evolution. Regardless, just like the cha cha cha swept the globe in the 1950s, Cuban son was as hot a millennial musical biscuit as there was.
In the years following Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa, Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, and Cachaito all went on to achieve great solo success. Age eventually caught up with some of them and worldwide denizens of that mythical Cuba of days gone by mourned the passing of Segundo in 2003 at the age of 95 and Ferrer in 2005 a spritely 78.