Buena Vista Social Club is the debut album by the eponymous ensemble of Cuban musicians directed by Juan de Marcos González and American guitarist Ry Cooder. It was recorded at Havana’s EGREM studios in March 1996 and released on September 16, 1997, on World Circuit. Despite its success, it remains the only standard studio album exclusively credited to the Buena Vista Social Club.
Buena Vista Social Club was recorded in parallel with A toda Cuba le gusta by the Afro-Cuban All Stars, a similar project also promoted by World Circuit executive Nick Gold and featuring largely the same lineup. In contrast to A toda Cuba le gusta, which was conceived as a revival of the son conjunto, Buena Vista Social Club was meant to bring back the traditional trova and filin, a mellower take on the Cuban son and bolero, as well as the danzón.
A critical and commercial success, the album’s release was followed by a short concert tour in Amsterdam and New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1998. Footage from these dates, together with the recording sessions in Havana, were shown on the Buena Vista Social Club documentary by Wim Wenders, released in 1999.
In 1996, American guitarist Ry Cooder had been invited to Havana by British world music producer Nick Gold of World Circuit Records to record a session where two African highlife musicians from Mali were to collaborate with Cuban musicians. On Cooder’s arrival (via Mexico to avoid the ongoing U.S. trade and travel embargo against Cuba), it transpired that the musicians from Africa had not received their visas and were unable to travel to Havana. Cooder and Gold changed their plans and decided to record an album of Cuban son music with local musicians. Already involved in the African collaboration project were Cuban musicians including bassist Orlando “Cachaito” López, guitarist Eliades Ochoa and musical director Juan de Marcos González, who had himself been organizing a similar project for the Afro-Cuban All Stars. A search for additional musicians led the team to singer Manuel “Puntillita” Licea, pianist Rubén González and octogenarian singer Compay Segundo, who all agreed to record for the project.
Within three days of the project’s birth, Cooder, Gold and de Marcos had organized a large group of performers and arranged for recording sessions to commence at Havana’s EGREM Studios, formerly owned by RCA records, where the equipment and atmosphere had remained unchanged since the 1950s. Communication between the Spanish and English speakers at the studio was conducted via an interpreter, although Cooder reflected that “musicians understand each other through means other than speaking”.
The album was recorded in just six days and contained fourteen tracks; opening with “Chan Chan” written by Compay Segundo, a four-chord son (Dm, F, Gm, A7) that was to become what Cooder described as “the Buena Vista’s calling card”; and ending with a rendition of “La bayamesa”, a traditional Cuban patriotic song (not to be confused with the Cuban national anthem of the same name). The sessions also produced material for the subsequent release, Introducing…Rubén González, which showcased the work of the Cuban pianist. Among the songs left off the album was the classic bolero-son “Lágrimas negras”, which was deemed too popular for inclusion, and Compay Segundo’s “Macusa”. Both songs were later released on the compilation Lost and Found.
The majority of the album comprises standards of the trova and filin repertoire, namely sones, guajiras and boleros typically played by small guitar-led ensembles. A foremost example of the son tradition on the album is “Chan Chan”, the group’s signature tune and the album opener. Written in the 1980s, it is one of Compay Segundo’s most famous songs, and one he had recorded several times, most notably with Eliades Ochoa and his Cuarteto Patria. The same formula is followed in this recording, with Ochoa singing lead and Segundo on second voice as his artistic name indicates. The song’s lyrics depict a rural scene with two characters: Juanita and Chan Chan. “Chan Chan” is followed by “De camino a la vereda”, another son, written and sung by Ibrahim Ferrer.
Another example of the son cubano is Sergio González Siaba’s “El cuarto de Tula”, sung by Eliades Ochoa, with Ibrahim Ferrer and Manuel “Puntillita” Licea joining Ochoa in an extended descarga (jam) section improvising lyrics. Barbarito Torres plays a frenetic laúd solo towards the end of the track. Timbales are played by the 13-year-old Yulién Oviedo Sánchez. The song is featured in the 2001 film Training Day. “Candela” is another classic son, composed by Faustino Oramas “El Guayabero”. Its lyrics, rich with sexual innuendo, are sung by Ibrahim Ferrer who improvises vocal lines throughout the track, while the whole ensemble performs an extended descarga.
Of the many boleros featured in the album, Isolina Carrillo’s “Dos gardenias” is perhaps the most famous, being sung here by Ibrahim Ferrer. Carrillo wrote the song in 1945 and it quickly became a huge success in Cuba and abroad. The song was chosen for the album after Cooder heard Ferrer and Rubén González improvising the melody before a recording session. Ferrer learned the song while playing with Cuban bandleader Beny Moré. Another bolero, “¿Y tú qué has hecho?” was written by Eusebio Delfín in the 1920s and features Compay Segundo on tres and vocals. Segundo was traditionally a “second voice” singer providing a baritone counterpoint harmony. On this recording, he multitracks both voices. The song also features a duet between Segundo on tres and Ry Cooder on guitar. “Veinte años”, also a bolero, is sung by the only female vocalist in the ensemble, Omara Portuondo, with Segundo on second vocals. It was recorded in one take after Omara had finished her own recording sessions at EGREM studios and was getting ready for a flight to Vietnam. Other boleros included are Rafael Ortiz’s “Amor de loca juventud”, Eliseo Silveira’s “Orgullecida” (both sung by Compay Segundo) and Electo Rosell’s “Murmullo” (sung by Ibrahim Ferrer, who used to be the lead vocalist in Rosell’s ensemble Orquesta Chepín-Chovén).
“El carretero” is a guajira (country lament) sung by Eliades Ochoa with the full ensemble providing additional instruments and backing vocals, while “La bayamesa”, a famous criolla by Sindo Garay, is used as the album closer, with Puntillita, Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer on vocals.
Two tracks are included from the Cuban danzón repertoire: “Pueblo Nuevo” and “Buena Vista Social Club”, both dedicated to locations in Havana, originally recorded by Arcaño y sus Maravillas, and composed by bass player Cachao (although the latter has been wrongly attributed to his brother Orestes López in the liner notes and by Cooder). The title track spotlights the piano work of Rubén González. It was recorded after Cooder heard González improvising around the tune’s musical theme before a day’s recording session. After playing the tune, González explained to Cooder the history of the social club and that the song was the club’s “mascot tune”. When searching for a name for the overall project, manager Nick Gold chose the song’s title. According to Cooder,
“It should be the thing that sets it apart. It was a kind of club by then. Everybody was hanging out and we had rum and coffee around two in the afternoon. It felt like a club, so let’s call it that. That’s what gave it a handle.”
The album was awarded the 1998 Grammy Award for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album and Tropical/Salsa Album of the Year by a Group at the 1998 Billboard Latin Music Awards.
Buena Vista Social Club achieved considerable sales in Europe, reaching the Top 10 in several countries, including Germany where it topped the charts, as well as the US, where it reached number 80 on the Billboard 200. In 2009, it was awarded a double platinum certification from the Independent Music Companies Association which indicated sales of at least 1,000,000 copies throughout Europe. As of October 2017, it is the second bestselling Latin album in the United States after Dreaming of You (1995) by Selena. (wikipedia)
This album is named after a members-only club that was opened in Havana in pre-Castro times, a period of unbelievable musical activity in Cuba. While bandleader Desi Arnaz became a huge hit in the States, several equally talented musicians never saw success outside their native country, and have had nothing but their music to sustain them during the Castro reign. Ry Cooder went to Cuba to record a musical documentary of these performers. Many of the musicians on this album have been playing for more than a half century, and they sing and play with an obvious love for the material. Cooder could have recorded these songs without paying the musicians a cent; one can imagine them jumping up and grabbing for their instruments at the slightest opportunity, just to play. Most of the songs are a real treasure, traversing a lot of ground in Cuba’s musical history.
There’s the opening tune, “Chan Chan,” a composition by 89-year-old Compay Segundo, who was a bandleader in the ’50s; the cover of the early-’50s tune “De Camino a la Verada,” sung by the 72-year-old composer Ibrahim Ferrer, who interrupted his daily walk through Havana just long enough to record; or the amazing piano playing on “Pablo Nuevo” by 77-year-old Rubén González, who has a unique style that blends jazz, mambo, and a certain amount of playfulness. All of these songs were recorded live — some of them in the musicians’ small apartments — and the sound is incredibly deep and rich, something that would have been lost in digital recording and overdubbing. Cooder brought just the right amount of reverence to this material, and it shows in his production, playing, and detailed liner notes. If you get one album of Cuban music, this should be the one. (by Steve McMullen)
And this edition includes an exemplary booklet with 48 pages !
Luis Barzaga (vocals)
Julio Fernandez Maracas (vocals)
Ibrahim Ferrer (vocals, percussion, claves)
Carlos González (percussion)
Juan de Marcos González (guiro, vocals)
Rubén González (piano)
Salvador Repilado Labrada (bass)
Manuel “Puntillita” Licea (percussion, vocals)
Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez (bass)
Benito Suárez Magana (guitar)
Manuel “El Guajiro” Mirabal (trumpet)
Eliades Ochoa (guitar, vocals)
Omara Portuondo (vocals)
Julienne Oviedo Sánchez (timbales)
Compay Segundo (guitar, percussion, vocals)
Barbarito Torres (laoud)
Alberto Valdés (maracas, vocals)
Lázaro Villa (percussion, guiro)
Joachim Cooder (drums, percussion, dumbek, udu)
Ry Cooder (guitar, slide-guitar, bolon, percussion, oud
01. Chan Chan (Segundo) 4.18
02. De camino a la vereda (Ferrer) 5.04
03. El cuarto de Tula (Siaba) 7.25
04. Pueblo Nuevo (López) 6.06
05. Dos gardenias (Carrillo) 3.04
06. ¿Y tú qué has hecho? (Delfín) 3.15
07. Veinte años (Vera) 3.32
08. El carretero (Portabales) 3.30
09. Candela (Oramas) 5.29
10. Amor de loca juventud (Ortiz) 3.23
11. Orgullecida (Silveira) 3.19
12. Murmullo Electo (Rosell) 3.51
13. Buena Vista Social Club (López) 4.53
14. La bayamesa (Garay) 2.54