'Buena Vista Social Club' at 25: Memories of memories

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'Buena Vista Social Club' at 25: Memories of memories
The album was named after a long-defunct club in Havana where Black musicians had once gathered.

by Isabelia Herrera, Jon Pareles and Giovanni Russonello

NEW YORK, NY.- “Buena Vista Social Club,” which was recorded 25 years ago and released in 1997, was the unlikeliest of blockbusters: a collection of decades-old Cuban songs, featuring musicians in their 60s, 70s and 80s, that has now sold in the millions worldwide.

The album was named after a long-defunct club in Havana where Black musicians had once gathered. With its release, Buena Vista Social Club also served as the name of the collective of musicians who performed on the album and, later, became an imprimatur for all sorts of projects connected to them.

Recorded in one week in Havana, “Buena Vista Social Club” led to concerts, tours, a 1999 Wim Wenders documentary centered on a triumphant Carnegie Hall show, and extensive solo and group projects over the next decades, bringing international recognition to the musicians. On the 25th anniversary of its recording, the album is being reissued in a deluxe package that includes an additional disc of tracks from the original sessions.

The album itself grew out of a setback. Its executive producer, Nick Gold of World Circuit Records, and guitarist and producer Ry Cooder went to Cuba with a musicological concept: uniting an older generation of Cuban musicians with some of the West African musicians, from Mali, who had been influenced by Afro-Cuban music. The Malians didn’t get visas, so the Cubans and Cooder had the studio to themselves, and they turned to playing some favorite songs — some they had written themselves, some that had become Cuban standards, nearly all of them dating back before the Cuban Revolution of 1959.

Somehow, the album found an audience far beyond niche so-called “world music” listeners and devoted revivalists. As both a music and commercial phenomenon, “Buena Vista Social Club” has turned out to be a complexly layered symbol and expression of rediscovery, vindication, historical memory, translation, nostalgia and Cold War politics. Now, 25 years later, we can add more layers: nostalgia for the moment of “Buena Vista Social Club” itself. This is an album that’s far more than its voices and instruments.

Here, critics from The New York Times discuss how the album comes across a generation later.

JON PARELES: Indulge me with an anecdote. In 2000, I visited Cuba for an utterly amazing festival of rumba. It was three years after the release of “Buena Vista Social Club,” well into the album’s commercial explosion. A typical Havana tourist, I wandered through the old city center, where it seemed like there was a bar with live music on every corner. What I remember vividly was a host outside one club, who knew an American when he saw one. “We have old guys!” he announced.

ISABELIA HERRERA: I like your anecdote, Jon, because it captures how the concept of nostalgia is key to understanding the legacy of “Buena Vista Social Club.” The aura around the project (as well as the images in the reissue’s packaging) evokes these “old guys” smoking cigars in black-and-white photos or playing instruments on the street near colorful vintage cars — a particular, antiquated image of pre-revolutionary Cuba in the American public consciousness.

It’s a notion that almost fetishizes the idea of isolation: one that suggests that Cuban musicians and listeners are totally separated from contemporary popular culture, frozen in time during the so-called “golden era” of the 1940s and ’50s. Notably, the liner notes of this anniversary edition open with a quote from Cooder: “The players and singers of the ‘son de Cuba’ have nurtured this very refined and deeply funky music in an atmosphere sealed off from the fall out of a hyper-organised and noisy world.”

Framing “Buena Vista” within the context of isolation diminishes its achievements and those of Cuban music before and after it. As the scholar Alexandra Vazquez has written, the uptick in compilations of and guides to Cuban music that followed “Buena Vista” helped generate plenty of myths about the island. They contributed to the fantasy that Cuban musicians ceased to innovate after the 1940s and ’50s, and proliferated the idea that you have to visit the island and immerse yourself in its vintage culture “before it changes forever” — as though Cuba is some kind of hidden paradise to be discovered, rather than a place that people call home.

I say this as someone who grew up in a household that adored “Buena Vista Social Club.” I have fond memories of my father singing “Dos Gardenias” in the evenings after dinner and a glass of wine, and returning to the album brings me back to a special part of my childhood. But I do think it’s worth pushing against that nostalgia, because the mythology of Buena Vista Social Club has tended to eclipse the actual music and its history. This is especially true in the way that it presents its musicians as being “rediscovered” or “saved” from erasure, when singers like Omara Portuondo enjoyed plenty of international success before this project (for one, she toured the United States with the group Cuarteto D’Aida and performed with Nat King Cole in the 1950s).

PARELES: You’re so right, Isabelia: The illusion that Cuba was somehow frozen in time, like the 1950s cars in old Havana, was definitely part of the aura of “Buena Vista Social Club.” It’s one of the many agendas that I doubt the album’s makers fully anticipated. For one thing, the old repertoire turned out to align, aesthetically and for some people politically, with nostalgia for pre-revolutionary Cuba, a complicated thing.

There was also something about the sonics of “Buena Vista Social Club.” It was recorded in Havana’s venerable Egrem studio in real time, on analog tape on a rickety recorder (which needed repairs on the first day of sessions), and without fancy post-processing, all of which also gave the music an extra patina. In 1996, you’d never get that piano sound in a studio in Los Angeles.

So in some ways, there was a sense that the album was a time capsule. But it wasn’t, exactly; if you wanted a time capsule, you could easily listen to actual vintage recordings. “Buena Vista Social Club” was also self-consciously retro. As elegant as the musicianship was, the singers’ voices were weathered with age, and they were crooning about romances from decades past. No one was pretending that the years hadn’t gone by; part of the appeal was that the performers and songs had mellowed with age. The reissue includes some alternate takes of songs, and to me, it sounds like the original choices were the more relaxed, cozier ones.

GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO: Jon, I have a different memory that feels like a nice counterpoint to yours. I was in South Africa at the Cape Town Jazz Festival, a good 15 years after your visit to Cuba. One of the featured performers, on the largest of five stages, was the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club. It had some “old guys,” of course, but also younger musicians who had come into the band well after its founding in 1996, as it continued to tour — a sign of the strength of the Buena Vista Social Club brand of nostalgia, but also of Cuban music. They commanded the audience. But a lot of what they played didn’t sound like what was on the original album; it felt like a decidedly broader, and more decidedly danceable, sampling of traditional Cuban music.

On “Buena Vista Social Club,” the tempos are slower and the horns far scarcer; it’s guitars and voices mostly, the sound of musicians throwing something together in a Havana courtyard or around a kitchen table. So to your point, Jon, about this record not exactly being a perfect time capsule, it sounds a bit like these musicians remembering these songs (a number of which are decades-old originals by the group’s members). That’s why it’s so rewarding to watch the documentary: You can see these musicians, as they perform, bask in what these songs represent to them.

Isabelia, to your point, I do think American audiences can often be guilty of thinking about listening to “world music” as an attempt to pin down or understand the music of a foreign place, which leads to an impulse to freeze things, and ends up in the kind of nostalgia you alluded to. I can never help thinking of “Buena Vista Social Club” in a lineage that runs through Alan Lomax and David Attenborough — of recordings that propose, dubiously, to provide a keyhole view into an entire musical culture — as much as I think of it as a “Cuban” record.

PARELES: Gio, you brought up what to me is the album’s defining element: memory. The Cuban elders — along with younger admirers like Juan de Marcos González, who tracked down the musicians, led the backup group and maintained it as the Afro-Cuban All Stars; and Portuondo, who as Isabelia said had her own career in motion, but happened to drop in to the “Buena Vista Social Club” sessions — were playing songs they remembered, fondly but without forgetting all that had happened in between. Listeners outside Cuba could bring their own memories — or romanticized fantasies — of pre-revolutionary Cuba. And now, with the reissue, we have memories of memories.

We’re also looking back on what became a turning point in how the outside world perceived Cuban music — and, also, how other cultures decided to treat the music of their own elder generations.

Buena Vista Social Club became a useful, widely extended brand. And the “Buena Vista Social Club” template — gather the survivors of previous eras into a collective — got applied in other regions. Tex-Mex border music got Los Super Seven, with Freddy Fender and Flaco Jiménez. Southwest Louisiana swamp-pop got Lil’ Band O’ Gold, with Warren Storm. There were latter-day reunions of great African groups like Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab and Benin’s Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou.

Buena Vista Social Club wasn’t the only impetus for projects like those; they were also encouraged by rare-groove crate-diggers (like Cooder, who had collected old Cuban music). But the astonishing commercial run of “Buena Vista Social Club” certainly encouraged gatekeepers to look back on music that spoke of an idealized past.

But did it point a way forward as well?

HERRERA: Revisiting this album as an adult, I am immediately drawn to the warmth and intimacy of these recordings. On the alternate take of “Pueblo Nuevo,” you can feel a sense of conviviality. In this version, the atmosphere of the studio itself is audible: the spoken conversation in the background, or the playful, whistled melody that follows Rubén’s González’s sprightly piano keys as he transitions from a danzón to a mambo style.

All of those details are in conversation with the actual music, and they remind us of the humanity of this recording: the fact that it is communal and collectively shared. It puts me in the studio, but it also puts me in my family’s basement, with all of my father’s CDs and records, immersed in the theater of emotion, anguish and joy this music renders.

It speaks to what you were saying Jon, about this anniversary as a memory of a memory. And listening as a young adult, I feel it demands immediate reverence and respect — for these elders, who were masters of improvisation and innovation, and whose music deserves to be celebrated.

RUSSONELLO: What’s funny is that in actuality, this music doesn’t really stand in for Cuban music, writ large, as Isabelia pointed out, it’s often asked to do. Much of it is rooted in son and trova, African-derived folk musics dating back to the 19th century that form the backbone of a lot of Cuban dance music. But it’s really something adjacent to the up-tempo dance styles that are so central to Cuba’s musical identity, and were huge just before the revolution.

The other albums that some of the Buena Vista Social Club’s members put out separately (many after 1997) gets you closer to the sound of Cuban dance music. One great example: “Mi Oriente,” a lively, easily streamable collection of dance sides that Ibrahim Ferrer, a Buena Vista vocalist, recorded in the 1950s and ’60s with Chepín Y Su Orquesta Oriental.

Listening to the new collection, I appreciated the opportunity to listen to a new set of music from these mythic sessions — without the ring of familiarity but, in many cases, the same level of catchiness. Also, there are a few tunes that are simply so infectious, they easily could’ve made it onto the original album, like “Vicenta” and the equal parts tender and full-blooded “A Tus Pies.”

PARELES: Gio, you’ve picked the two most finished songs among the outtakes, and you’re right — they could easily have joined the original album. One thing that strikes me about the other tracks is how casual the sessions sound. They clearly weren’t thinking “mythic” at the time.

On three tracks featuring Rubén González on piano — “Mandinga,” “El Diablo Suelto” and “Siboney” — he’s playing with his usual puckish elegance, and the tape was running, but people are chatting nearby. (González, who according to the liner notes hadn’t played piano in years before Buena Vista Social Club was assembled, was the most enterprising of the “old guys”; he also got a superb album of his own, “Introducing...,” out of these sessions.)

Most of the other outtakes are clearly rehearsals, not that I mind; 25 years later, it’s a fascinating glimpse at how the music came together. Listening to the album now, I also have a stronger sense of Ry Cooder’s presence than I had noticed on its release. For Cooder, Buena Vista Social Club was one among many projects — like “The Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band Featuring Ry Cooder,” “Talking Timbuktu” with Ali Farka Toure from Mali and “A Meeting by the River” with V.M. Bhatt from India — that gave him a chance to collaborate with far-flung musicians: listening respectfully but definitely joining in. He’s tucked into the original album’s arrangements, most recognizably on slide guitar. And the last track on the expanded “Buena Vista Social Club” is a trio version of “Orgullecida” — Cooder and Compay Segundo on guitars and Manuel Mirabal on trumpet — that moves the song into ragtime, one of Cooder’s home territories.

HERRERA: Jon, you asked earlier if “Buena Vista Social Club” pointed a way forward. It is hard to avoid the reality that the project follows in a long line of musical projects that ended up “reintroducing” or “summarizing” musical cultures for foreign ears — even if the recording initially emerged as a happy accident. Ultimately, I am so glad these musicians achieved the success they did, and that new markets were opened to them, because they were well-deserving of compensation.

Today, there is such a vibrant community of Cuban hip-hop, and dozens of other Cuban musicians that I hope get a similar level of recognition on an international scale. At the very least, “Buena Vista Social Club” offered more curious, thoughtful listeners an entire new musical world. But a more ideal way forward would undo the colonial logic that underpins the legacy of “Buena Vista Social Club” — the requirement for Western support in order for “foreign” music to be valued — so these artists could be appreciated on their own terms.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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