In April, Cuba began a new chapter in its history. For the first time since the post-revolution government was formed in 1959, the island’s leader did not bear the Castro surname. The arrival of Miguel Diaz-Canel as president may have signalled change to some Cubans, but to others, it will be a continuation of the revolutionary legacy.
Among the resplendence of the ’50s-era classic cars and colonialist architecture, the music – heard from the insides of lounges, on patios and on street corners – plays beside the politics. Cuban music has been popular around the world since the 19th century, but when the Buena Vista Social Club album came out in 1997, it had an indelible effect on the international community’s perception of Cuba.
Eliades Ochoa, one of the four surviving original members of the Buena Vista ensemble, was only 11-years-old when he started playing music in Santiago de Cuba, a town on the east side of the island. He had to begin work when he was 12-years-old to support his family financially. Coming from a poor family, he was not able to study music, so his parents taught him.
“They both used to play Son Cubano at family reunions and parties, and I used to listen to this kind of music,” he tells me. “I came from a family with a deep musical tradition – since my brothers played the guitar and my sisters sang.”
Son Cubano originated from east Cuba at the end of the 1800s. It takes clave rhythms from the Bantu region and blends them with Hispanic vocal styles. Cuba has a rich musical heritage, and many genres from emerged from the Caribbean island.
“I think music unifies us as a nation, embodies our identity, and represents us very well,” says Ochoa. “Our country is known as a creator of styles and genres, and we are popular for playing well el bolero, danzón, son, cha cha cha, mambo. We’ve also participated in some changes on jazz music for instance.”
Ochoa was a fan of Son music and taught himself to play it on the guitar. He began to play regular concerts in the neighbourhood and became better known locally. He collaborated with well-known Cuban musicians Roberto Rosell in Septeto Típico Oriental and trova singer Faustino Omaras “El Gayabero”. Ochoa also worked at Teatro Estudio led by the actress Raquel Revuelta and was founder of Quintento de la Trova, a group that toured around the island.
Although he did not know it, Ochoa’s musical career would change forever after playing a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in 1994. At that concert, he met Nick Gold, the CEO of World Circuit Records, a label based in London that specialised in world music.
Without knowing it, Gold had come across Ochoa before. “When I went to Cuba in the eighties, I found a CD by a guy called Nico Saquito and then we released that record,” Gold tells me. “It was only when I arrived at the concert that I found out that the main singer and guitarist on that track was Eliades. When I heard him sing in person in London, it clicked that he was the guy I’d heard on that record.” Before the Buena Vista Social Club, Ochoa also recorded for an independent Mexican label that distributed in the US by Rounder Records.
Gold first became interested in Cuban music in the mid-’80s when he was working in Mole Jazz, a record shop in King’s Cross in London. Working in the shop with Cuban musician Arsenio Rodriquez educated him on the country’s music. “When I started listening to African music, it was Cuban music played by Africans,” says Gold. “That struck a chord with me and made me investigate a bit further.”
At the Queen Elizabeth Hall show, Gold told Ochoa about a project his was working on involving Malian and Cuban musicians. Ochoa was keen to be involved with it and the pair agreed to work on the project in Havana. When Gold was next in Cuba, Ochoa made the journey west from Santiago to Havana to stay at the Hotel Inglaterra, in the capital’s Parque Central, to wait for the Malian musicians. However, visa problems prevented the Malian musicians from being able to fly to Cuba to make the record.
Instead, Gold had to improvise. Working with American producer Ry Cooder and Juan de Marcos, the bandleader who had brought together the ensemble, the original line up of the Buena Vista Social Club was formed. The original ensemble included Eliades Ochoa, Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Ruben Gonzales, Pío Leyva, Omara Portuondo, Joachim Coorder, Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez and Barbarito Torres.
“It was a band that was very specially put together for that occasion,” says Gold. “I think a lot of people knew of each other rather than knew each other, but at the same time, we found out later that Ibrahim and Omara had a history going way back and Eliades knew Ibrahim from some Santiago relation.”
There was a very strong Santiago influence on that record because the original ensemble had three major musicians from the city on it – Ferrer, Eliades and Compay.
“Everyone seemed to get on incredibly well and there was a massive mutual respect going on,” says Gold. “It wasn’t really an ego thing or any challenge, but everyone rose to the occasion. Everyone was aware that their equals and their peers surrounded them. It didn’t feel like one brilliant musician and a backing group – in this case, even the backing group were made up of exceptional musicians.”
Despite having one day when the tape machines were broken, Gold said, the six days of recording went relatively smoothly. “It was pretty organic in a sort of relaxed but intense way. We worked very formal days — they didn’t go on until massively late. They all started in the morning at about 10AM and then went on until about 6PM. We were working very hard; there wasn’t much downtime.”
“We went there with some repertoire ready in mind for the project so some of those tunes still made it onto the record, but at the same time, because we ended up with a lot of musicians that we hadn’t planned on using, we sort of busked it to a large extent.”
According to Gold, around 70 percent of the songs on the record were suggested there and then by the musicians playing. But they were all known songs; none of them were made up on the spot: most of the record is comprised of Son songs that came out in pre-revolutionary Cuba in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s.
Some of the songs were really old: “La Bayamasa”, the final track on the album, was first being sung at the beginning of the 1900s, according to Gold. Viente Anos is also an old song, dating back from the ’20s.
But some tracks on the record are much newer. The romantic swing of “Chan Chan”, the track often regarded as the signature Buena Vista tune, was only heard in in the mid-nineties, only a couple of years before the album came out.
The song itself doesn’t sound that new and Gold deems it “quite an oddball song as far as Cuban Son goes”. As well as Son, the album features a number of local genres, including son montuno, bolero and criolla. The songs on the record cover a range of themes, ranging from romance to fires breaking out in the local neighbourhood. For example, “¿Y Tú Qué Has Hecho?” tells the story of a man and a woman underneath a tree. The tree ends up falling in love with the girl and starts dropping flowers onto her.
Ry Cooder played a significant role in producing the Buena Vista Social Club record, adding guitar and percussion. Cooder had previously worked with Gold on an album by a Malian musician called Ali Farka Toure.
Gold explains why he chose to work with Cooder on the album. “The project before went well and because I’d been listening to Ry since I was 13 or 14,” he says. “He’s an incredibly sensitive and brilliant musician. He’s very good at not imposing himself on a project but at the same time, he understands very quickly what’s going on and how to capture it efficiently.”
Cooder and Gold saw Compay as a repository for Cuban music history. “Ry nudged and cajoled Compay into looking into his memories of years ago,” says Gold. “I think that Ry shocked the memories out of Compay that he might not of otherwise offered out. Ry was very good at pulling things out and identifying them.”
“Ry identified Compay very early on as a very important musician and source, because he was so much older than most of the others and also because he was very obviously a great musician.”
Another key part of the record was Ruben Gonzalez, a pianist who was in his 70s who was lured out of retirement for the Afro Cuban Allstars album, a record Gold recorded with him the week before the Buena Vista project.
“We got Ruben rehearsing again for six months before we got there,” says Gold. “So he’d retired, but he had been getting ready because he was a bit arthritic and not sure of himself. But he’d been rehearsing again and limbering up at Cachaito’s house for six months before we got there so by the time we did get there, he was on fire.”
Every time Gold arrived at the studio in the morning, Gonzales would already be there waiting for the door to be unlocked.
“When Ruben got into the studio, he’d run over to the piano and start playing. He would literally not stop playing all day. You’d have to gently close the piano lid to get him to stop playing.”
On the second day of recording, Cooder asked whether there could be a spot for a softer voice to sing “Dos Gardenias” in bolero style. In response, Marcos left the studio and found Ibrahim Ferrer on the streets of Havana, a retired singer who was making a living shining shoes and selling lottery tickets.
“The moment Ibrahim opened his mouth, it was very apparent that there was wonderful talent in the room,” says Gold. “What was probably the strangest thing of all — he was incredibly brilliant and virtually unknown — even in Cuba itself.”
Although some of the Cuban musicians were familiar with Ferrer, they never saw him as a particular standout member of various bands. “I think he was super closely-kept secret about how good a solo bolero singer he was. Barbarito knew about him and he tipped Marcos off, knowing he would be the person to bring in.”
Although Gold and Eliades left the studio knowing that they had recorded a special record, they did not anticipate it having the impact it did. The album won several awards, including a Grammy Award for the Best Tropical Latin Album in 1998. A follow-up documentary by Wim Wenders, Beuna Vista Social Club (1999), about the making of the record, was nominated for Oscars, BAFTAS, and a slew of other film awards at festivals all over the world.
“It gave us a hell of a lot of work at World Circuit because we were a tiny company – there were only two of us when we started the record. We had to take on more staff to cope with it.”
Many records were made in the aftermath of Buena Vista Social Club with the likes of Ibrahim and Omara. Barely a year later ClubAfrica was released, an album Ochoa worked on with Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango. He also worked on AfroCubism in 2010 with Malian artists including Toumani Diabate. The full Buena Vista Social Club band even went on a world tour, playing two dates in Amsterdam and one in New York.
Although there are not many surviving Cuban musicians from the Buena Vista Social Club project now, half of them are still musically active. Omara Portuondo and Eliades Ochoa are still touring, with Ochoa embarking on a world tour earlier this year, playing at the Latin Music Festival in London in April.
To many, Buena Vista Social Club was more than just a record; it became an emblem of Cuba. “It massively helped the tourist trade,” says Gold. “The success of the album drew people to Cuba — it made their music seem less strange; it opened people up to that sort of music, certainly in the West. In Cuba itself, maybe there was some validation in it, but they need very little validation about their own music, which they prize above everything else.”
“I think music will continue to identify us as a nation, and remain a source of happiness and bridge to establish and create new relations,” says Ochoa. “Obviously things will keep changing, as that happens with music but hope, tradition and respect to our fundamental sound will remain.”
The US trade embargo, which has been in place since 1958, has undoubtedly had a profound economic impact on Cuba. Although the 2015’s improvement in US relations under Obama’s administration gave the country an opportunity to extend musical communications and interactions with the international community, the incumbent president Donald Trump looks set on undoing them.
But political and economic obstacles have not stunted creativity and music remains an integral part of Cuban life.
“Before, our music was blocked and having our songs played around the world definitely changed things,” Ochoa says. “Come to Havana today and you will see how many groups are playing our music. Because Buena Vista Social Club identifies as Cuba.”