Let’s Keep The Love For The Buena Vista Social Club Going Forever Because They Are True Icons
Alright, fam. Our parents’ generation was hella into The Buena Vista Social Club. They’re Cuban. That’s all I really knew. Maybe that makes me a bobo or maybe every other 20-something is just as clueless about this group.
What I learned is that they are a legacy of viejos that actually remember what Afro-Cubano music was like in the homeland before the revolution. They’re keeping it alive and we should, too. Here is everything your mother expects to know about The Buena Vista Social Club.
The Buena Vista Social Club started out in the 1940s as a result of racial discrimination.
Cuba’s socializing back then took place at “social clubs” which were institutionally segregated by skin color. The Buena Vista Social Club was a social hub for Afro-Cuban musicians and performers that kept it’s niche musical styles alive.
This is the original building, now abandoned.
It was founded in 1932 in Marianao, Havana and was wildly known as a cabildo, a legacy from slavery. During the 19th century, African slaves organized fraternities, i.e. cabildos. Back then, there were cabildos for cigar wrappers, one for baseball players, and even one for doctors and engineers. The BVSC was for musicians.
After the Revolution, all cabildos were shut down.
When President Manuel Urratia Lleó was elected in 1959, he tried to build a classless and color blind society, and closed down cultural centers as an effort to integrate society. The new administration went on to favor the emergence of pop and salsa music.
Viejos went out of work while young artists started to flourish with a new wave of 1960’s Cuban music.
It seemed as if this traditional Cuban son music was dying, and the African influences of Cuban music would be gone forever. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.
Thirty years later, American guitarist Ry Cooder and British producer Nick Gold revived the BVSC.
Gold invited Cooder to Havana in 1996 to record a session with Cuban musician Juan de Marcos González and African musicians from Mali, who last minute were not able to secure visas to visit. That was when they decided to record Cuban son.
Within three days, they gathered the 20 or so musicians that would make up The Buena Vista Social Club.
Already on board was guitarist Eliades Ochoa (pictured above), bassist Orlando “Cachaíto” López and González. Eventually, they found a pianist named Rubén González (who was in his 80s at the time) and Manuel “Puntillita” Licea.
Their only album was recorded in just six days.
The album is made up of fourteen tracks. It opens with “Chan Chan,” which would become what Cooder would later describe as Buena Vista’s calling card, and ending with “La Bayamesa.” These fourteen songs are just the start of BVSC’s legacy.
Nobody expected how big BVSC would get.
The album was released on September 17, 1997 as a CD and quickly became a word of mouth hit. Rolling Stone listed it as No. 260 on The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time in 2003.
It sold more than 1 million copies and won a Grammy.
I know, now, why the moms love this story. First, their music is good. You must listen to the album start to finish. Segundo, this gives us all hope that no matter how old we are, the best could still be yet to come.
They went on to perform in Amsterdam and Carnegie Hall.
For most of the members, going on tour was the first time they ever left the island, and these are all viejos we’re talking about here.
Even before they blew up, Cooder started working on getting a documentary production together to record their stories.
At the same time Cooder was working on producing the album after recording, he started working with a German film director, Wim Wenders. The documentary, “The Buena Vista Social Club,” shows the faces of each of the members as they see NYC for the first time. It’s incredible.
Meet the band, one by one.
The lead singer of BVSC was born in an actual social club dance in Santiago in 1927. Ferrer spent his whole life performing sets with various different bands, including legendary Beny Moré. By the time producer Juan de Marcos González found him taking his daily walk, he was living in a decaying apartment in Old Havana, occasionally shining shoes to make ends meet.
González has been a master pianist since he was a young kid. He went to medical school in the hopes of becoming a doctor by day and pianist by night but couldn’t spend that much time away from the piano. He was in a few different bands and was happy with his quiet life of semi-retirement. Allegedly, Juan de Marcos González had to drag him to the studios.
Ruben had a successful solo career after BVSC.
Immediately after recording BVSC, he started recording “Introducing…Rubén González.” It took him two days with no overdubs and Cooder released it all at the same time as BVSC. He famously told The Telegraph, “If I can’t take a piano with me to heaven, then I don’t want to go.”
The only woman in the entire band, Omara is a legend who went on to drop her own solo albums. The story goes that her mother was born into a rich Spanish family and eloped with an Afro-Cuban baseball player. Her and her sisters were famous for their quartet in Havana. Her sister went into exile in the U.S., while Omara stayed and was coincidentally recording at the same studio as BVSC when Cooder snagged her for the project.
She still performs in Havana.
Compay Segundo, born as Francisco Repilado Muñoz Telles, was born in 1907 and lived until he was 96 years old. As a young boy, he made a living in the tobacco fields and cutting hair but by 15 years old, he wrote his first song, “Yo bengo aquí.” He even invented his own instrument, the armónico. He played in his 1950’s formed band “Compay Segundo y su Muchachos” until he died.
Leyva was born great. When he was 6 years old, he won a bongo contest and wrote over 25 albums before ever partnering with BVSC. He actually was a muchacho de Compay Segundo.
Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal
Miribal learned the trumpet on his father’s knee. He was in several different famous jazz bands and orchestras before getting with the BVSC, which took him farther than imaginable.
Guitarist and vocalist, Ochoa, started playing when he was just 6 years old and by his early teens, he was playing in the “underground” circuit. In 1978, he actually took over Cuarteto Patria, which had been around since 1940 and brought them to international famedom and tours.
He vowed to wear the cowboy hat to pay tribute to his campo roots.
Viva The Buena Vista Social Club.
The thought of losing a musical tradition that comes from strong Afro-Latinx roots and has fought to stay alive under political and fiscal duress is unacceptable. While those that are still alive in the BVSC made their “Adios” tour, I hope you’ll vow with me to say the same thing to our kids, “No, pero no te sabes just how maravillosa The Buena Vista Social Club really was, dime.”