Buena Vista Social Club: A Taste of Cuba for the Pope’s Visit

By Ice Boy Tell [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]
By Ice Boy Tell [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)] (photo: Register Files)

The sounds of Cuba struck me like a hurricane. I was in high school when the first Buena Vista Social Club album jumped the embargo and drew me to the rhythms of Havana. I’m not generally one for jazz (or pop music) so it’s hard for me to explain why this music laid hold of my imagination. It was vibrant, vivacious, compelling, capturing—the Latin beats, the sounds of the Caribbean. The music continues to speak to me in a way that most modern music does not.

Cuban music is truly catholic in the sense of uniting disparate things together—with its Spanish roots and European influences, blended with the African music brought to the new world by the slaves. The African tradition introduced new beats, rhythms, and dance styles, as well inspiring instruments such as the clave, bongos, guiro, and timbales, among others. Cuban music has influenced jazz and salsa and given birth to the rumba. Many of the artists of the Buena Vista Club are Afro-Cubans and its music draws heavily from this tradition.

When the album titled simply The Buena Vista Club was released in 1997 it became international best seller and a documentary on the group also won many awards the next year. The group, a collection of old Havana musical stars, took its name from a popular jazz club shut down fifty years earlier. The sounds of group inspired by the old club are reminiscent of that lost era. Many of the artists had retired and fallen into obscurity. Guitarist Ry Cooder describes how the original music club inspired the new group’s name:

Society in Cuba and in the Caribbean including New Orleans, as far as I know, was organized around these fraternal social clubs. There were clubs of cigar wrappers, clubs for baseball players and they’d play sports and cards -- whatever it is they did in their club -- and they had mascots, like dogs. At the Buena Vista Social Club, musicians went there to hang out with each other, like they used to do at musicians’ unions in the U.S., and they’d have dances and activities.

The group was collected somewhat spontaneously with the help of a younger Cuban musician, Juan de Marcos (who also assembled the Afro-Cuban All Stars), working with American guitarist Ry Cooder and English producer Nick Gold. The album came together quickly with only six days of recording, which is surprising considering that the twenty artists assembled had no prior preparation for the project. The performers, especially vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer and pianist Reubén Gonzáles, quickly skyrocketed to international fame.

The original album came just in time as many of its leading artists have now died. The Buena Vista Club has preserved the legacy of an important strand of Cuban music and has sparked broader interest and revival. Surviving members and new recruits have advanced this tradition, continuing to tour and record new music. In addition, a new album of material recorded at the time of the 1997 original was just released this year, titled Lost and Found, to indicate that the music, not originally chosen for the first album, sat around all these years before being rediscovered and released.

Here are some selections of the Buena Vista Club’s music:

In the same interview referenced above, Cooder reflects on the impact the music has on him, in a way that resonates with my own experience:

I get up in the morning, I put on Buena Vista or whichever of these records, and I feel really great. I feel buoyant and encouraged and it brightens the corner of the day. That’s what music is supposed to do. It’s not supposed to scare you or hurt you or upset you in some crazy way. It’s supposed to make you feel encouraged and connected to something. That’s what these Cubans are really good at doing with their music; they’ve done it for themselves as a country for a very long time in a very artful, highly crafted way. 

In light of our thawing relations with Cuba and the Holy Father’s visit there, it’s a good time for a taste of Cuban culture.