One of the criteria for testing whether an album is a classic or not is to see its endurance and lasting appeal long after it was made rather than its immediate impact. When it comes to the Buena Vista Social Club
album it not only made its impact soon after it was released, surpassing record sales projections, but almost 20 years ahead it still delights listeners, and most importantly it is still the best-selling recording in the "world music" genre to date. It was a project that almost didn't happen when a planned collaboration between musicians from Cuba and Mali did not materialize when the musicians from Mali were denied their transit visas by US authorities. And it was singer Juan de Marcos Gonzales who suggested they should record an album with traditional Cuban songs instead and the project soon was morphed into the Buena Vista Social Club.
Named after a popular club in Havana, the Buena Vista Social Club gathered a group of elderly Cuban musicians, who were well in their sixties and seventies, along with younger musicians. Again, it was Juan de Marcos who tracked most of the musicians and turned this group of musicians into a cohesive working unit. Under the watchful eye of Ry Cooder, the outcome was nothing short of magic and traditional Cuban music was presented in a way it has never been presented before. Producer Ry Cooder is renowned for his emphasis on things like "feel," "magic" and "performance." Cooder is a musically curious person, and his wandering ears have provided him with plenty of extra-curricular music adventures. Prior to this recording, he had helmed some very interesting and groundbreaking cross-cultural collaborations and guest performances, such as the duets with Vishwa Mohan Bhatt on Meeting By the River
and the legendary duet record with the late Ali Farka Toure Talking Timbuktu. Buena Vista Social Club
is a beautiful record, largely because Cuban music is, generally speaking, utterly beautiful. It is a stylistic milestone achieved with minimal miking and without any fixing in the mix aesthetic. There is a live feel to each song on the record regarding of style and tempo. As such it provides a boisterous glimpse at the sounds of pre-revolutionary Cuba. What Cooder has managed to achieve is a sound that sparks with life and character, and bristles with inventiveness. As a result, the music these people play sounds like the past, present, and future all at once.
"Chan Chan" opens the album, and the mood is sky high. When Eliades Ochoa strums the opening chords on his guitar, the album immediately establishes its celebratory side. In the accompanying documentary of the same namedirected by the brilliant Wim Wenders it becomes even more evident how collaborative this album is (including other subsequent albums from the series). Wenders' documentary does a pretty good job of highlighting the different personalities that constitute this assembly of musicians. Evidently, these people were not backing musicians that were hired to play the parts, but dynamic and versatile musicians who contribute significantly in steering the direction of the project.
The album covers a wide range of traditional styles from boleros, son, descharga, guajira, danzon to criola, presenting just a taste of the richness of Cuban music. The musicians impress with their near ability to weave multiple grooves, melodies and feelings into a seamless fabric. An example to that are the upbeat songs such as "Candela" "El Cuarto de Tula " and "El Carratero" which are driven by steaming vocals with switching rhythms and meters that are executed with a dancer's precision. The rhythm section really wastes no time when it comes to getting the train rolling with detailed but groovy beats. In general, these performances have a hypnotic intensity to them that make you feel like you are in a club with the group. The band members are diving deep and are finding pearls. Along the way, they provide not only an insight into where this music comes from but how the songs shift and transform in the hands of musicians dedicated to exploring what these standard songs can hold.
Just marvel at Ibrahim Ferrer's gentle and soulful "Dos Gardenias" and the duet between Omara Portuondo and Compay Segundo's "Veinte Anos" as their voices weave together over the percussive thrums below. The duet is a wonderfully subtle artistry and Portuondo's silky and mahogany voice envelops and glides tenderly with Segundo's deep voice. There are many sublime moments on this record, such as the title track and the closing "La Bayamesa," but the music truly refuses to settle into the easy listening predictability. Stretching on two vinyls, this music neither overstays its welcome or it wears out by repeated listening. As a reissue, it doesn't feature any unreleased songs. Those were released as part of Lost and Found
(World Circuit, 2015). Every detail from the cd, including its rich with information and photographs booklet have been faithfully reproduced.
Any list of all-time favorite albums should include this classic. Buena Vista Social Club
is a near flawless album which celebratory nature and daring musical approach remains fresh, inspirational and timeless. Even with the luxury of 19 years to absorb and unravel its irresistible allure, Buena Vista Social Club
still sounds beautiful. It is still full of music that hasn't lost any of its intensity over the years and as such it is ripe for rediscovery.