Back in the late 1990s, seemingly every music collection included the album Buena Vista Social Club. The Afro-Cuban sound was fresh and new, and hips just naturally started swaying to its deep, sensual rhythms. The album went on to sell more than eight million copies, win a Grammy, and be ranked among Rolling Stone’s greatest albums of all time.
Yet it was the film of the same name, directed by Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire), that introduced the legendary members club and its veteran musicians to the world in an incredibly intimate fashion. The acclaimed documentary—which follows American guitarist Ry Cooder through the streets of Havana as he searches for the Latin jazz greats—provided a fascinating look into not only Cuban music, but a lifestyle and culture that, until just recently, had been lost to us for 50 years.
During Havana’s heyday in the 1930s and ‘40s, the Buena Vista Social Club was a popular members-only club in the city’s heavily populated Marianao neighborhood. The venue was a hub for Afro-Cuban musicians and performers, who kept alive the island’s traditional music styles such as son. The Cuban revolution in 1959 brought an end to such nightclubs as the country moved toward a more racially integrated society; by the mid-1960s, Buena Vista Social Club had shuttered its doors.
Ironically, the club and its musical legacy would have remained in obscurity were it not for some visa problems. World Circuit Records’ producer Nick Gold had originally invited Cooder to visit Cuba (traveling there via Mexico) to record a collaboration of Cuban and African musicians. When the latter couldn’t get into the country, Cooder and Gold decided to improvise. Lucky for all of us, they did.
Veteran pianist Rubén González had recently come out of retirement to perform with the Afro Cuban All Stars, a multi-generational band assembled by Juan de Marcos González. Soliciting Juan de Marcos’ help, Cooder and Gold persuaded Rubén to join a group of musicians who had performed at Buena Vista Social Club—and who would, in turn, provide us with a link to a cultural sound that had all but vanished.
Other formerly prominent artists signed on as well, including the great guitarist Eliades Ochoa and singer Ibrahim Ferrer, who was making a meager living shining shoes. Omara Portuondo, the company’s leading lady, came onboard, as did 89-year-old trova guitarist and singer Compay Segundo, who composed the album’s signature track, “Chan Chan.” The group would be accompanied by some of Cuba’s finest musicians in a meager Havana studio where, over the course of a single week in 1996, they recorded what would become the most successful album of Cuban music in history.
Under the name Buena Vista Social Club, the group went on to perform in Carnegie Hall in 1998; the film, released in 1999 and nominated for an Academy Award, added to the phenomenon. While original members Segundo, Rubén González, and Ferrer have since passed away, others such as Portuondo and Ochoa continue to record and tour the world, ensuring that Cuba’s musical heritage and the son genre will keep hips swaying for another generation.
For more information on our upcoming trips to Cuba, visit our Cuba Destination Page.