In 1997, when many of us were introduced to the graying members of the Buena Vista Social Club through their first album and a Wim Wenders’ documentary, we thought we’d like to be them when we grew up. As full of grace as Omara Portuondo, effortlessly elegant as Ibrahim Ferrer, or as entertaining and prodigiously talented as Ruben Gonzalez.
Now 25 years later, we have grown up, at least chronologically. We might have self-improved, but we also got to watch and learn as the Buena Vistas dealt with international attention with humility and gratitude. Many tours and solo projects later, the group morphed and reformed – reunions of musicians thrown together by fate and ran with the serendipitous break they were given. Sadly, some also passed away.
World Circuit has released a 25th-anniversary edition of their debut album with new liner notes and photos about the now-historic studio sessions. In 2015, their record company released Lost and Found, unreleased tracks the members had recorded – and it was surprisingly satisfying. However, many of the songs matched the singers with big bands, a bold palette in contrast to the small ensemble where they first played together. But what to make of this double album of re-mastered and newly released tracks?
Of course, the band again sustain the beautiful ease and sway that endeared them to so many people, many of whom had no prior interest or exposure to Cuban music. The past is often not quite as lovely as we remember it. But the Buena Vista Social Club successfully recreated a somewhat mythical world of bygone days of stately elegance, graceful dancing, and courtly love. What is highlighted by the album is that this was a meeting of musicians who represented a living history of Cuban music—some of the old styles they explored at Havana’s Egrem Studios pre-date their own careers.
To revisit the story: producer Nick Gold, guitarist Ry Cooder and Sierra Maestra bandleader Juan de Marcos Gonzalez got together in Havana to record Cuban musicians with African instrumentalists. They looked at the musical loop that began when the slave trade brought Africans to the Americas and continued when the music was re-seeded in Africa with the 20th-century proliferation of Afro-Cuban songs. However, the project fell apart due to visa issues, and the producers improvised a gathering of several musicians who played various older styles of Cuban music that had gone out of fashion.
The organizers put out the word, and magic happened, not unlike that from a fairy tale. Ferrer, who had been a famous singer at one time, had been shining shoes on the streets. He eventually recorded a solo album that garnered him a Best New Artist Latin Grammy at 72. Gonzalez had not played piano for ten years and didn’t even own one anymore. But he quickly brushed off the rust and tickled the ivories to such received delight that World Circuit decided to feature him in a solo album. It was his international debut at the age of 78. Singer-songwriter Compay Segundo was 91 and had been rolling cigars for a living.
In the second half of the new release, there are several cuts in which the musicians are talking as a song takes shape. In other places, there are remixed songs in addition to the opening remastered version. While it may be mana for completists, it may seem superfluous for others.
Several songs expose other facets of the group’s unearthing of old Cuban styles. “La Plum” highlights the ensemble’s exploration of rural music. While the expanded album features some additional time with Gonzalez, it does not offer more exposure to Portuondo, who became a big fan favorite in their live shows and subsequently released some excellent solo material.
While the remastered tracks are not fully reimagined versions of their songs and probably will sound similar to most listeners, this new set gives us more time with the members. The extended length of the project sometimes feels like an after-concert informal get-together. Imagine finding yourself lounging with a tangle of great musicians who are enjoying each other’s company, spinning out song after song, tickling each other’s nostalgia for forgotten tunes.
It’s easy to see why several of these loosely held together tracks would not be a producer’s first choice for a debut album, but, on the other hand, who would want to pass up an opportunity to hear Gonzalez impishly delighting all on “El Diablo Suelt” or “Manding” with one of his master-class joy rides at the piano?
If this new edition introduces more folks to the gauzy, nostalgia-tinted world created by these wonderful musicians, so much the better. The ensemble was always about more than music – they were living lessons in life that were embraced by many listeners who loved their implicit message that sweet music could still be ahead as our youth recedes in the rear-view mirror. While several of the key players are no longer with us to celebrate the anniversary of their debut, they created a ready portal to an idealized past and a hoped-for future for us all.