Buena Vista Social Club's Universe
In 1996, American guitarist Ry Cooder assembled Cuban performers to record music in the classic son style of the 1950s. Named after a once-prominent nightclub in Havana’s Marianao neighborhood, the Buena Vista Social Club project featured two dozen formerly popular entertainers, and the resulting 1997 album was a notable success, sparking documentary films and helping revive the recording careers of several performers.
Yet the album was also a deliberately old-fashioned re-creation, a sentimental stroll through pre-Castro Cuba for world music adepts. Many of the songs were Cuban classics, first recorded by such trova pioneers as Eusebio Delfin (“Y tu que has hecho?”) and María Teresa Vera (“Viente Anos”), or bolero entertainers like Puerto Rican-born Daniel Santos (“Dos Gardenias”). One member, guitarist/singer Compay Segundo, had recorded a series of guajira (“country”) duets in the late 1940s, including 1949's “Hey, Caramba." And all members boasted connections to the legendary creators of mambo and son, through family relations, friendships, one-off gigs or band tenures.
The crossing of paths is fascinating. Arsenio Rodriguez, who claimed to have invented both mambo and salsa (the former claim is roundly disputed, the latter less contentious thanks to his development of son montuno), was a regular performer at the original Buena Vista Social Club in the 1940s. Bassist Israel “Cachao” Lopez (another mambo pioneer) and the spirit of his ground-breaking 1950s descargas, or jam sessions, were represented on the Buena Vista project by the bass playing of his nephew, Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez. Guaracha singer Pio Leyva was friendly with most of the Buena Vista crew, and his time alongside Benny Moré offers a link to one of Cuba’s greatest popular singers (Pacho Alonso, the inventor of Pilón, also came out of Moré’s band).
The list goes on. Puntillita once sang alongside the superstar Celia Cruz. Manuel Galbán served as musical director for '60s doo-wop/fusion group Los Zafiros. Juan Gonzalez formed the Sierra Maestra band in the 1970s, later helping create the Afro-Cuban All Stars, who recorded a diverse collection of Cuban music at the actual Buena Vista sessions. Singer Marcelino Guerra cut an album shortly before his death using several of the musicians later tapped by Cooder. And the eventual success of the Social Club created a cottage industry of solo releases from the artists involved: Compay Segundo, pianist Ruben Gonzalez, trumpeter Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal, singers Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo, laúd master Barbarito Torres, guitarist/singer Eliades Ochoa. There was even an all-star collaborative album titled Rhythms del Mundo Cuba, pairing Buena Vista members with U2, Maroon 5 and Jack Johnson. That project hardly played to the strengths of Ferrer and Portuondo. But it was nice to see these elderly performers having fun on the world stage.
Here’s a playlist exploring the multifaceted and historical universe of the Buena Vista Social Club.