Throughout the 90s, in a time preparing itself for the new millennium, fusion and dance electronica, with its deep beats and futuristic synthesizing sounds, were at the cutting edge of music. Little did anyone expect one of the biggest hits of all time in music to become something felt so deeply from the past.
Ry Cooper, an American producer and Nick Gold of World Circuit Label had made plenty of music with musicians around the world, but never in Cuba. They set out to make an album blending Cuban and African beats, but when the African musicians couldn’t make it in due to visa entry issues, they decided to go on a limb and attempt an album anyway – little did they know it would be, as one critic put it, “the world music’s equivalent to The Dark Side of The Moon”.
Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, the bandleader, set out to create a band -a loose collective of veteran musicians spread throughout the city. He kept coming back to the producers with musicians who hadn’t played for decades, yet had been massively popular in the 50s, before the Revolutionary government had shut down all nightclub and entertainment spots, hoping to rid Havana of its lavish and luxurious lifestyle. The album gets its name from the members’ only venue that was the social hub for musicians and performers during the 1940s through early 1960s in the Mariano neighborhood of Havana. In its golden era, it encouraged and fostered the development of traditional Afro-Cuban musical style such as Son, and was run based on the principles of a Cabildo, traditionally African ethnic associations in colonial Cuba that existed during a time when Cuban society was still organized around clubs whose membership was determined based on ethnicity, as slavery and racial discrimination against Afro-Cubans was vastly prevalent and institutionalized.
By the mid-1960s, a generation of music and musicians suffered, particularly once Cold War restraints on the island went into full effect. Cultural and social centers were closed down to make way for new, racially integrated societies. Private festivities were limited to weekend parties and organizers’ funds were confiscated; measures soon resulting in the closure of the Buena Vista Social Club. Although the Cuban government continued to support traditional music after the revolution, the emergence of pop music and salsa (a style derived from Cuban music but developed in the United States), meant that son music became even less common. The occurrence of these closures and the change in traditions is the simplest explanation of why many musicians were out of work, and why their style of music had declined.
For the musicians of the All Stars to have instruments to play, let alone record with an international label after they assumed they would never play again, was extraordinary.
Throughout the seven days that they recorded and made Cuba’s best-selling album of all time (selling over 8 million copies) Ruben Gonzalez, the acclaimed pianist with no piano, would wait by the studio door every morning until the janitor arrived to unlock it, and he’d shuffle in quickly to the piano, stopping only when they had to lock up again for the evening. Ibrahim Ferrer, the singer of many of the album’s songs was barely surviving shining shoes and selling lottery tickets until his talent was rescued by obscurity and he was able to give the world the gift of his voice. Eliades Ochoa was able to provide the rural musical roots of Santiago, while Omara Portuondo was recruited as the band’s leading lady, and Compay Segundo, with the richly-lived voice of an 89-year old, pulled this new album deeper into Cuba’s abundant musical past. “He knew the best songs and how to do them since he’s been doing it since World War One,” Ry Cooper said of Segundo’s natural musical intuitiveness. The deep talent that expressed itself through song was equally backed by the richness of musical support: Orlando ‘Cachaito’ Lopez, the bassist and the heartbeat, Manuel ‘Guajiro’ Mirabal, the trumpet player, and Barbarito Torres, the virusoso laoud player.
The run-down Egrem studio they recorded in was, for them, absolutely gorgeous. Built in the 50s, it was a spacious room up a few flights of stairs in the back alleyways of old Havana. The album was recorded ambiently, the way it would have been in the 50s, not close-up to each instrument and vocalist like commonly seen today. The feeling when you hear the recording is togetherness – as if they were all rehearsing and practicing in the room with you, drinking mojitos and smoking good cigars.
When it was first released, some world music fans took notice, but soon, sales started to rise steadily, and no one understood why. Only a few weeks after its release, every café and bar, as well as everyone’s cousin, was playing it. Although the album had been spectacularly reviewed by a few critics, the unprecedented response came almost exclusively from word of mouth. Every person who heard it fell in love with the warm acoustics and the richly timeless sound of each song, its crossover success skyrocketing, eventually earning it a Grammy. The album not only became synonymous with a certain coffee and dinner party culture that was cultivating itself in the late 90s, but also ignited a Latin flame, and as Nick Gold described:
“The record’s success launched what can only be described as Cuba-mania, helping to inspire a thousand salsa dance classes and Cuban-themed bars on every high street. At its peak, it seemed that you couldn’t move without hearing Buena Vista’s potent, captivating soundtrack: in coffee shops and mojito bars and even department stores and elevators songs such as Chan Chan, Dos Gardenias and Candela came to accompany our daily existence. Suddenly, Buena Vista was not so much a record as a brand, albeit one based on musical quality rather than marketing hype. Even Salman Rushdie, in his New York novel Fury, paid tribute to its all-pervasive power, describing the long hot days of 1998 as “that Buena Vista summer”.
A European and North American tour was booked, and this would be the first time in decades any of the musicians had left the country. One of their last stops was their infamous show at Carnegie Hall in New York City – the venue packed and the audience erupting with energy for these musicians.
Luckily, acclaimed director Wim Wenders was there, and featured the show near the end of his Academy Award nominated documentary, adding even more fame and attention to the musicians.
The hunger for everything Buena Vista caused Nick to trademark the name, as shops, bars, and events across the world began using the name for their own marketable purposes. It seemed everyone wanted a piece of the old world at a time when conversely, everyone was looking forward to Y2K and its future. The album acts as a distinct type of musical resurrection that has extraordinarily impacted and influenced Western music, extending beyond the collectiveness of incredibly talented musicians brought out of ignominy, to providing an interpretation of Latin, particularly Cuban, influence on world music for European and American audiences.
The Buena Vista Social Club is a story filled with extravagant talent buried beneath incredible simplicity, trapped in the past only to be pulled out to create the future.