In March 1996 the London-based record label World Circuit arranged a recording trip to Havana, Cuba. In just over two weeks three albums were recorded. All three were released to great critical and public acclaim. The third album, ‘Buena Vista Social Club™’ was released in June 1997 and has since come to be regarded as a classic, selling 8 million copies worldwide.
Juan de Marcos González, the co-founder of the Afro Cuban All Stars and Sierra Maestra, had a long cherished dream of recording the music of Cuba’s golden era, the 1940s and 1950s, with the original musicians of that time. This was a dream that he shared with Nick Gold of the tiny independent World Circuit Records. Together they also planned to record Gold’s idea of a collaboration between a number of African and Cuban guitarists. Gold invited Ry Cooder to participate, the two having worked together before on Ali Farka Touré’s Grammy Award-winning ‘Talking Timbuktu’. Cooder replied within hours saying he would be there. The Africans failed to make the trip but recording went ahead anyway, on the improvised project that became ‘Buena Vista Social Club’.
‘Buena Vista Social Club’™ is both the name given to this extraordinary group of musicians and the album, recorded in just seven days in Havana’s 1950s vintage EGREM studios. It was clear from the atmosphere of the recording sessions that something very special was taking place. However, no one could have predicted that Buena Vista Social Club™ would become a worldwide phenomenon, outselling any other record in the same genre, elevating the artists to superstar status and popularising Cuba’s rich musical heritage, all of which has contributed to a massive boom in Cuba’s tourist and recording industries.
The album has an intimate, natural charm that comes from musicians totally at ease with other, sharing a deep passion and understanding for the music, playing a repertoire suggested by themselves. Arrangements and instrumentation were worked out during recording according to the feel of the individual songs, and the vast majority of the performance was recorded ‘live’ in one or two takes.
The album features the vocals of septuagenarian Ibrahim Ferrer, a star from the 1950s who was called in on the first day of recording after years of musical inactivity . Also on vocals is the only woman on the album, the great bolero singer, Omara Portuondo “the Edith Piaf of Cuba” (Cooder). Omara happened to be in another studio rehearsing and Cooder invited her upstairs to record. On piano is the brilliant Rubén González, veteran of Arsenio Rodríguez’s early 1940s band whom Cooder describes as “the greatest piano soloist I have ever heard in my life.” On guitar and vocals is Eliades Ochoa, the great country musician who was flown in for these recordings from Santiago in the east of Cuba. The oldest musician on the album is the giant of Cuban music, guitarist and vocalist Compay Segundo. According to Cooder, “the whole album turned on Compay. He was the fulcrum, the pivot. He knew all the best songs and the way to do them. Well, he’s been doing them since World War One.”
These featured musicians are joined by a host of Cuba’s greatest players including Orlando ‘Cachaíto’ López on bass, Manuel ‘Guajiro’ Mirabal on trumpet, Barbarito Torres on laúd, Virgilio Valdés (maracas) and Carlos González, percussionists from the band Sierra Maestra.
The album includes an extraordinary variety of Cuban styles from the city sounds of Havana to the country style of Santiago and the songs cover a range of the Island’s history, from ‘La Bayamesa’ written in 1869 to ‘Chan Chan’, a recent composition by Compay Segundo.
The enthusiasm that surrounded the Buena Vista Social Club™ album soon became apparent. and the charm of the music inspired Wim Wenders to make a film about these amazing musicians. Shot mainly in Cuba, the film also features concert footage from the group’s only performances in the Carré Theatre, Amsterdam and Carnegie Hall, New York. The film has delighted audiences around the world and has contributed to the extraordinary success of this project, and the re-emergence of some of Cuba’s finest musicians.
The Buena Vista Social Club™ phenomenon transformed the careers of Rubén González, Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo who continued to record with World Circuit. Under the title of ‘Buena Vista Social Club™ presents…’ the three stars each released their debut albums for the label and achieved huge success.
‘Buena Vista Social Club’ ™has a timeless quality. This is a music that transcends the vagaries of mere fashion and an album which is destined to be regarded as a classic for years to come.