Buena Vista Social Club: Lost and Found

From the vaults come 14 unreleased tracks by the beloved Cuban ensemble.
Buena Vista Social Club
Lost and Found
World Circuit

Lost and Found comprises 14 previously unreleased tracks, studio and live recordings, by members of the Buena Vista Social Club, the beloved Cuban ensemble that Ry Cooder and producer Nick Gold recorded in Havana in 1996. World tours, a documentary film, and concerts and albums by individual BVSC members followed the 1997 release of their debut album, which, with more than eight million copies sold, remains the best-selling “world music” recording to date.

Most of the musicians and singers who formed the BVSC were in their late sixties and seventies, and the Cuban styles they performed dated back to the 1950s. Some critics carped that the entire project was an exercise in nostalgia for pre-revolutionary Cuban culture (and life), and one that entirely ignored contemporary Cuban music like timba and the island’s hip-hop scene. Nevertheless, the music was beautiful and emotionally deep, and it was moving, and gratifying, to see older, mostly forgotten artists like pianist Rubén González, singer Ibrahim Ferrer, and singer-guitarist Compay Segundo enjoy late-life recognition and revived careers.

On stage, the featured artists and the backing band made the album, as good as it was, seem like a sketch of the project’s possibilities. Ferrer was a suave, supremely soulful bolero singer who also could rock a guaguancó; González’s virtuosic pianism dazzled audiences, who hung on every note he played. Compay Segundo, a sly and charismatic nonagenarian, sang powerfully and soloed on the armónico, a seven-string cross between a guitar and the Cuban tres, an instrument he invented. Omara Portuondo, a veteran of Cuba’s pre-revolutionary nightclub scene and a founding member of the all-female vocal group Cuarteto D’Aida, was, like Ferrer, as brilliant on up-tempo numbers as she was singing boleros. Anyone who caught the full ensemble’s shows, as I did in New York, remembers them fondly for their grace, elegance and excitement.

Nearly 20 years after the album’s release, Gold returned to the material that didn’t make final cut. “I started to dig into the these archives, which were pretty voluminous,” Gold told NPR, “and it became apparent pretty quickly that there was at least an album’s worth of really wonderful stuff, little gems.” The unreleased studio cuts come from the original Buena Vista Social Club recordings and from album sessions of the individual artists, including band members. The live performances were recorded during the world tours of Ferrer and González. Lost and Found is a collection of leftovers, but none is past its shelf life; they all have mucho sabor.

And since Portuondo (along with tres player and vocalist Eliades Ochoa) now is the only surviving member of the original group of featured performers, the album is an especially welcome, if poignant reminder of what was.

A 72-year-old Ferrer, onstage in a sold-out house in Paris in 2000, gets the show rolling with Arsenio Rodriguez’s “Bruca Manigua”, backed by Ferrer’s big band, which he modeled on the “banda gigante” that the legendary sonero Beny Moré led in the 1950s. Ferrer, who idolized Moré, pays homage with a tender reading of his classic bolero, “Como Fue”, also recorded live in Paris. From the original 1996 BVSC sessions at Havana’s Egrem Studios comes “Macusa”, a terrific son written and sung by Compay Segundo, who shares vocals with Eliades Ochoa, the tres-playing leader of the country ensemble Cuarteto Patria. Omara Portuondo’s “Tiene Sabor”, with an all-female coro, evokes the sound of Cuarteto D’Aida. “Soy Omara Portuondo de Calle Hueyso La Habana” (“I am Omara Portuondo from Hueyso Street in Havana”), she sings, as the chorus affirms that she brings “sabor sabor y nada mas” (flavor and nothing but). This “little gem” was left off the BVSC album because it was deemed too up-tempo for a collection of mainly slow love songs, so it’s great we finally get to hear it. “Bodas de Oro” is an elegantly funky danzon recorded for what remains an unfinished solo album by BVSC trombonist Jesús “Aguaje” Ramos. Rubén González’s son handles piano duties until his papa takes over for the final solo, the last one he ever recorded, at age eighty.

“Black Chicken 37”, cut for BVSC bassist Orlando “Cachaíto” López’s 2001 album Cachaíto, is the kind of descarga (instrumental) that was the stock in trade of his uncle, the great bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez. Composed in the studio by Lopez and conga drummer Miguel “Angá” Diaz, it features a terrific percussion section made up of Diaz, Amadito Valdés on timbales, Carlos González on bongos, and Virgilio on maracas, and a violin solo by Pedro Depestre. Sadly, Diaz, Depestre, and Cachaíto all have passed away – Depestre while on stage performing with Lopez’s band.

The New York salsa band the Alegre All-Stars inspired one of the best tracks on Lost and Found, “Guajira en F”, which, like “Bodas de Oro”, was cut for Jesús “Aguaje” Ramos’ unreleased album. (The two numbers are so strong that one can only wonder why, and regret, that Ramos’ record was never completed and issued.) Trumpeter Miguelito Valdés and vocalist Carlos Calunga, who has been performing with the current Buena Vista Social Club touring band for more than a decade, turn in outstanding work on this jam, which like all the studio cuts on Lost and Found, was recorded live in the studio.

“Mami Me Gustó”, another Arsenio Rodriguez tune, also recorded live, shows off Ibrahim Ferrer’s skills as a rhythm singer; Cachaito on bass, “Aguaje” on trombone, and Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal on trumpet break out from the ensemble to deliver tight and fiery solos. Portuondo’s “Lagrimas Negras” was recorded during the 1996 BVSC sessions but someone (Cooder? Gold?) thought that the Miguel Matamoros song, a standard of the Cuban repertoire, was overly familiar. A bad call indeed. Portuondo sings it simply but affectingly, eschewing the melodrama lesser singers often bring to the tune. Eliades Ochoa on guitar and Barbarito Torres (who made a couple of excellent post-BVSC albums under his name) on the laoud, a lute-like stringed instrument, provide superb accompaniment.

Lost and Found ends with 50 seconds of a cappella scat singing from Rubén González recorded during rehearsals at Egrem studios. It makes for a lovely farewell, from a master musician and to a wonderful musical venture that now, with the final tour this year of the remaining members of Buena Vista Social Club, is coming to an end.

Unless there is some more “really wonderful stuff” in the vaults that Nick Gold hasn’t told us about yet.

RATING 7 / 10