Buena Vista Social Club | Cuba

Buena Vista Social Club | Cuba

Picture the scene: sitting in the library of an English university, idling out towards the grey background of the coldest April experienced in 50 years. An internet browser knee-deep in open tabs that scream procrastination, while ambitious and expensive plans for the summer holidays dart around my head. I decide to sonically change the scene, and it is then that the rich, energetic tones of a Cuban “collective” ease from my sub-standard headphones. I am transported to a world of colour, vibrancy and (dare I say it) warmth, such is the backdrop set by the Buena Vista Social Club.

Following the end of the Cuban revolution in 1959, a new regime was installed under which entertainment establishments were closed down in an attempt to suppress cultural and racial diversity. One such establishment was the Buena Vista Social Club, a popular member’s club, whose musicians were consequently left in a state of unemployment and forced into any job they could lay their hands on.

The following decades observed an evolution of musical genres, from Cuban Son, jazz fusion, folk, punk to hip hop. Throughout this period, Cuban guitarist Juan de Marcos González had set up a traditional Cuban Son ensemble, while American guitarist Ry Cooder was busy performing with a range of artists including The Rolling Stones, Van Morrison, Little Feat and composing for film.

However, it was not until 1996 that these guitarists joined forces to reignite the Cuban embers by setting out to record an album inspired by the legacy of the social club. What resulted was a 14 track self-titled album, Buena Vista Social Club, featuring renowned Cuban musicians from the club’s heydays, including pianist Rubén González, Papi Ovideo on trés and Barbarito Torres on laúd.

Recorded in just six days at EGREM studios, Havana, the twenty strong collective were comprised of predominantly Cuban musicians – a fact which seems to emanate from the music itself, effortlessly conveying a street-side cafe in the heart of the Cuban capital.

Though the opening track, “Chan Chan”, is widely considered the ‘hit’ song, the remainder of the album is far from filler. My personal favourites include “¿Y Tú Qué Has Hecho?” and “Orgullecida”, for both express the melodies with a simultaneous nonchalance and feeling of wisdom that only experienced musicians can master. In “Orgullecida”, Segundo’s voice glides between the notes with ease and a hint of frailty – characteristics that are perfectly complemented by Cooder’s signature slide guitar technique. Perhaps it is because of its harmonic and stylistic resemblance to gypsy jazz, or due to the Cuban background it paints, but it does not feel like a studio album. One is not drawn to it for a showcase of bells and whistles, but rather pushedaway to a secluded island; Mojito in hand and peace in mind.

Global response to the album was positive to say the least. In 1998 the album received a Grammy award, following which the group collaborated with German film director Wim Wenders in 1999 (Cooder was already an acquaintance of Wenders, having written the score for his 1984 film Paris, Texas). The feature-length documentary followed the musicians as they travelled Cuba and the States, profiling their lifestyle and reactions to their growing success.

Wenders also captured their first live performances from Amsterdam’s Carré Theatre and New York’s Carnegie Hall. The resulting film was a huge success, giving audiences a glimpse not only into the history and members of the group, but also into the vibrant streets of Havana from which this story originates. Today, album sales stand at over 8 million, a feat previously unheard of for what is considered “specialist World music”.

Readers may also be interested to learn that the majority of this music has been released under World Circuit Records. Established in the mid-1980s with the aim of promoting Cuban and West African music, the label offers an excellent starting point for discovering the exciting music from this sector of the world.

Fittingly, World Circuit Records helps to keep the Buena Vista flame alight to this day, supporting the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club. Featuring both new and remaining musicians, the thirteen-strong ensemble continues to exhibit the music of Cuba.

Much like the legacy that Buena Vista Social Club was built on, a legacy now remains from the collection of talented and passionate musicians that made it so, propelling “specialist World music” into the lives and ears of many.

Article written by Oli Scheuregger – TETO Music