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Chapter 2: Buena Vista Social Club: From Local Phenomenon to Global.

It´s never too late if happiness is good.

Throughout its history, the Son -as the Cuban Rumba- took longer to achieve institutional recognition, even though they were always venerated by the people and respected by the musicians of the continental circuit. The Cuban musical product -in all its manifestations- was a great reference for Latin American and Caribbean culture. However, after a glorious time for Cuban artists during the first half of the 20th century, in the young years of socialist Cuba, Cuban music lost its prominence in the region.

At the end of the 70s a project called Estrellas de Areito was carried out, whose purpose was to summon the great figures of the golden age of Cuban Son (the 40s and 50s), in an attempt to exalt these colossi of the Cuban music that were falling into oblivion. The American musician and producer Ry Cooder, and the record producer Nick Gold were involved, and although that musical work did not have the expected resonance, it laid the groundwork for subsequent projects that would give rise to the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon.

Years later, the Sierra Maestra group, a format that paid tribute to the sonera tradition and Cuban trova, developed a series of international tours and presentations. Juan de Marcos González (Cuban musician and producer), was a member of that band, and participation in these events around the world allowed him to interact with important personalities and music entrepreneurs. From these exchanges emerged the connection and friendship with Nick Gold and World Music, the record label that would launch the Buena Vista Social Club album to the world, and with it distinguish Cuban music within the heritage of universal culture.

Finally in 1995, Juan de Marcos and Nick Gold agreed to organize a project, in a Jam Session style, where Cuban and African musicians would merge. The World Music label had been promoting a line of recordings that explored the richness of African culture and in 1994 they had won the Grammy award for the Best World Music with the album Talking Timbuktu, produced by Ry Cooder. With Ry and Nick’s experience, and their interest in African and Cuban music, which had fascinated them during the edition of Estrellas de Areito, they traveled to Havana in 1996 to undertake this new project.

Along with the troubadour from Santiago de Cuba, Eliades Ochoa, and other Cuban musicians who would be part of the recordings, the arrival of the two African musicians was expected: Toumani Diabate, cora player, and the guitarist Chadi Madi. The African instrumentalists could never arrive due to difficulties with their visas and this new circumstance caused a change in the original conception of the project. It is then when Juan de Marcos summons consecrated figures of Cuban music, among which were: Compay Segundo, Rubén González, Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo.

Ángel Terry Domech, tumbador and member of the project relates:

We were lucky that Rubén González kept, in a folder, danzones of all times: Buena Vista Social Club, La negra Tomasa, etc. arrangements were not even made, it was all from memory (…). There was a true profession of teachers who, for many years, dedicated themselves to music.

The instrumental danzón “Buena Vista Social Club”, authored by Israel López, Cachao, and which evoked those glorious dances of the homonymous Social Club, gave the title to one of the records that was produced at that time. Another of the albums was A toda Cuba le gusta, with a big band format. Both musical works were nominated for the 1997 Grammy Awards, but it was the Buena Vista Social Club studio album that won in the Traditional Music category. However, before obtaining the award, the album had already sold more than half a million copies in Europe, as a result of several concerts performed with the Afro-Cuban All Stars format, under the direction of Juan de Marcos, where they only included a few of the musicians who participated in the recordings.

In 1998, Ry Cooder returned to Havana with the German film director Wim Wanders, with the intention of filming a documentary about those troubadours and soneros, who were living testimony of a millenary culture, and who had achieved world fame in their old age, to become legends. The cinematographic work was recognizing the talent and virtuosity of Cuban interpreters and composers, and also a whole heritage that had survived wars, revolutions, emigration, and discrimination, yet sounded full of life and joy, and managed to move the most diverse audiences.

The documentary was titled Buena Vista Social Club, and beyond its technical values, Wim Wanders delivered a sensitive and honest work, that transmitted the charisma and grace of these Cuban musicians. Artists with capital letters, with no other pretensions than to sing their melodies and serve Cuban music itself, who never renounced their identity, their purest roots, being that the most worthy way to honor the nation that fathered them. The film won more than fourteen international awards and an Oscar nomination, in a kind of double distinction: for Wanders’ work and, at the same time, for the work that gave the documentary a reason for being.

 

by Cuban Musicologist and Havana Music Tours’ guide, Rocío De Lucía

Buena Vista Social Club: The vindication of Cuban music

In a marginal neighborhood of Havana in the 1930s, an “alluring mestiza” danced in a black social club, eventually packing the most important and distinguished stages in the world. This is the true story of the “Buena Vista Social Club”. More than a name, more than a gathering of dance-loving folks, more than a nostalgic song, more than a Grammy-winning record and a multi-awarded documentary, this phenomenon enticed the whole world to dance and became the antonomastic insignia of Cuban Son. Buena Vista Social Club is all that and it is also the vindication of that “alluring mestiza” that Cuban popular music has always been.

Chapter 1: The place. The Social Club in the humble Buena Vista neighborhood.

From the depths of the Cuban East, the Son and the Trova were dragging musicians, poets, dancers, love stories, tragedies, parties, and passions in a kind of conga, until they reached Havana in the early twentieth century. In the capital, the Son seduced with such force that he came to merge with ballroom and solar dances, he entered the bowels of the culture to baptize everything he touched as “Cuban”, from danzón to salsa -which would later be consolidated as a genre in New York, at the end of the 60s-.

Thus the Son arrived at the Buena Vista Social Club, which, according to Rafael Lam (2016: 58), was a black society, of the many that existed in Havana before 1959. The Social Clubs were popular cultural societies in Havana, divided according to the different social strata, and where its members paid a monthly fee to participate in the activities that were organized there. Buena Vista, on the other hand, is a neighborhood located to the west of the city, and it was built to be inhabited by the servants who worked for the rich of Miramar, a neighborhood that was right next door, much more luxurious and residential.

The owner of the Buena Vista cultural society, Julio Dueñas, had moved the entity from a small and humble house to a slightly larger one in 1948. The new location had a patio and living room 15 meters long by 20 meters wide, where dances were developed and some of the most popular musicians of the time played. Although it was a humble neighborhood and the society was frequented by black proletarians, it was mandatory to dress elegantly in correspondence with the standards of the time.

Many of the events exceeded the cost of the average salary of the club’s worker members. The musician and composer Antonio Arcaño, one of the great monarchs of the dances, would later confess that he offered many free dances in that society. He did it not only for the satisfaction of that humble sector, but because those entities were dance music authorities, practically judges of the charangas, and if an orchestra succeeded in that environment, it could be considered a good orchestra.

The Buena Vista Social Club became the mecca of Cuban Son, where the most authentic musicians, composers and orchestras of the time passed, paradoxically the most humble. Antonio Arcaño, Arsenio Rodríguez and Regino Frontela Fraga –director of the Melodías del 40 orchestra- became the sovereigns of dance after passing the litmus test of the Buena Vista public. Legend has it that while absurd waltzes or fox-trots were performed in the highest status clubs, at the Buena Vista Social Club dancers packed the sidewalk when a concert by the danzoneras brass bands was announced, for example, La Ideal by Joseíto Valdés, La Típica by Pedrito Calvo, Cheo Belén Puig or La Típica by Aniceto Díaz.

In the new regime established after the triumph of the revolution in 1959, all societies and Social Clubs in Cuba were eliminated. Considered a “vice” that promulgated racism and the division of society, the concept of the Social Club was not compatible with the new socialist ideology. The Buena Vista Social Club was closed and the building became merely a home, with no more glories, and whose joys would not be evoked until decades later.

Footnotes (Spanish):

  1. El término “son”, en español se refiere al género musical bailable de origen cubano.
  2. Conga: Dígase del género musical bailable de origen afrocubano donde los bailadores siguen a los músicos en marcha, marcando el ritmo con sus pasos.

  3. Edificios donde los habitantes viven en cuartos muy pequeños y aglutinados y comparten baños públicos y otras zonas comunes.

 

Read part 2 of the Buena Vista Club Story

 

by Cuban Musicologist and Havana Music Tours’ guide, Rocío De Lucía