One of my favorite soundtracks of summer is the Buena Vista Social Club. Whenever I hear the distinctive Cuban beat and soulful lyrics, I’m transported back to the days when I lazed on pristine beaches and swam in turquoise oceans. That’s my past, but the Buena Vista Social Club’s history is much more fascinating.
During the 1930 and 1940s, the Buena Vista Social Club in Havana, Cuba, held dances and live music just about every night. The Afro-Cuban music played in the club grew so popular that the Buena Vista Social Club became the place to be for the hip and cool in Havana, especially for Cubans with African roots. Musicians who performed at the club included bassist Cachao López, band leader Arsenio Rodríguez, and pianist Rubén González, who went on to become members of the musical group that adopted the name of the club. López, Rodríguez, and González have described the 1940s as “an era of real musical life in Cuba, where there was very little money to earn, but everyone played because they really wanted to.”
Many musical styles sprung up from this period including the mambo, and the charanga, as well as dances such as the pachanga, and cha-cha-cha. Afro-Cuban music, the rumba and son, developed, and with the band leader Arsenio Rodríguez increasing the role of trumpets, congas, and piano, son morphed into the son montuno. Since then, son has influenced musicians all over the Americas, both north and south.
After the Cuban Revolution in 1959, President Manuel Urrutia Lleó aspired to obtain a “classless and colorblind society.” This meant that Afro-Cuban cultural and music centres, like the Buena Vista Social Club, closed because they almost exclusively catered to the Afro-Cuban population. The government supported local music but gave preference to nueva trova and the salsa, while son slid in popularity. Cuban music took on more of a pop feel, as did its dance styles, and the son and its traditional variants were no longer desired by the young people of Cuba.
In 1996, a music producer invited American guitarist Ry Cooder to Havana to record a session with two African musicians from Mali. After Cooder arrived (via Mexico), he found out the Mali musicians hadn’t received Cuban visas and couldn’t make the recording. The music producer and Cooder changed their plans and set out to record a son album instead, enlisting the expertise of local musicians.
Amongst the group was musical director, Juan de Marcos, who had worked with the Afro-Cuban All Stars. He helped track down Cuba’s best son musicians, including Compay Segundo, a singer then in his eighties. In three days, Cooder, the producer, and de Marcos had a large group of enthusiastic musicians ready to record. They laid down the tracks at Havana’s EGREM Studios, which RCA Records once owned. Not much of the equipment had changed since the 1950s, and even though Cooder’s Spanish was minimal, he and the other men managed to communicate through other means than speaking – namely through their music.
It took six days to record 14 tracks, resulting in an album that has since gone on to become an international sensation. In 1998, German director Wim Wenders filmed the performance of the Buena Vista Social Club in Amsterdam, followed by a concert at Carnegie Hall. He interviewed the musicians and compiled footage to create the documentary, Buena Vista Social Club. This documentary won many accolades, including an Academy Award and Best Documentary at the European Film Awards.
The success of the film and album ignited a newfound international interest in traditional Cuban music, which flowed on to Latin American music also. Some of the Club’s performers released successful solo albums, and they have gone on to perform collaborations with other international artists from different musical genres.
Years ago, I was fortunate enough to catch the Buena Vista Social Club playing a live performance in Melbourne, Australia. Even better, a friend, who had some amazing musical connections, managed to get me back stage to meet members of the group. I chatted in Spanish with these warm and friendly musicians, the whole experience feeling surreal. That is one of my best memories, and I wish I could have captured it in a photo. Too bad there were no camera phones back then.
As time slowly ticks by, the world is sadly losing the original members of the Buena Vista Social Club. Compay Segundo, who wrote Buena Vista’s flagship song, Chan Chan, passed away in 2003, at a very respectable age of 96. When asked about his longevity, Segundo’s reply was “mutton, consommé, and rum.” Forever the optimist, Segundo predicted he’d live to be 115, but unfortunately passed away much earlier. On the hundredth anniversary of his birth, Havana held a concert in his honor. His closest friends made up the orchestra, and no doubt, it would have been a very moving experience for both the musicians and the audience.
There are several surviving original members who now tour under the name of the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club. Even though many are in their late 80s and early 90s, these musicians still delight audiences of all ages, and introduce new fans to their music with every concert.
It’s incredible to think how a couple of men not obtaining a travel visa to Cuba kicked-off what has to be one of history’s most impressive musical projects. Although it would have been disappointing to the men from Mali to miss out on their trip to Cuba, the world is a much better place now that we can share in the musical delights of the Buena Vista Social Club. Funny how serendipity works.
And of course, for your viewing pleasure: