Twenty-five years ago, the album Buena Vista Social Club rekindled international interest in traditional Cuban music. For Juan de Marcos González, one of the creative minds behind the project, the album can be considered “a symbol of the power of Cuban music”, and for good reason! The album sold more than a million copies, won a Grammy and put a group of artists of over 70 years of age to travel around the world, with a huge talent that was certainly not “discovered” by Ry Cooder, but that re-emerged from oblivion.
In 1996, American composer, arranger and guitarist Ry Cooder arrived in Havana with the idea of recording a Cuban Son album. Juan de Marcos González, director of the Sierra Maestra group, was in charge of bringing together, at the EGREM studio, a group of singers and instrumentalists with a long career, but unfortunately, hardly remembered at the time.
Juan de Marcos convinced artists, such as Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa, Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez, Omara Portuondo, Manuel “Puntillita” Licea, Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal and Orlando “Cachaíto” Lopez, among others. The result was spectacular: in just six days 14 songs came out. The name of the album also sought a connection with Cuba’s musical past, since the Buena Vista Social Club had been one of the most popular places in Havana in the 1940s of the twentieth century, with some of the best bolero, danzon and son performers of the time.
Buena Vista Social Club and Ry Cooder
The success of the album encouraged Cooder to return to the Cuban capital to record a second album, this time with vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, then 72 years old, as central figure. Cooder was accompanied by German filmmaker Win Wenders whose documentary not only showed the recording process of that album, but also the stories of the musicians and their live performances in Amsterdam and Carnegie Hall in New York. The audiovisual work was applauded around the world. He received an Oscar nomination, won the Berlin Bear and helped to ensure the globalization of the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon.
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Then came more albums, under the World Circuit label, and with a similar title: Buena Vista Social Club presents… Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Ruben Gonzalez, Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal. There were several world tours, acknowledgements, fame, even a performance at the White House; but many of the musical geniuses who inspired the project were not able to fully enjoy its success. Compay Segundo died in 2002, at the age of 95; Ibrahim Ferrer in 2005, at 78; Ruben Gonzalez in 2003, at 84; and “Cachaíto” López in 2009, at 76. Others, like Omara Portuondo and Eliades Ochoa continue to make music.
PanamericanWorld invites you to take a closer look at some of the best moments and central figures of Buena Vista Social Club, as legends of traditional Cuban music.
THE CHAN CHAN OF COMPAY SEGUNDO
The first track on the iconic Buena Vista Social Club album is “Chan Chan”. It is no exaggeration to say that this is one of the most famous Cuban songs of all time. Its author was Máximo Francisco Repilado, known to all as “Compay Segundo”. This artist was well known in the twenties, thirties and forties of the last century. He was part of the duo “Los Compadres”—hence his nickname—and then created the band “Los muchachos”. In 1996, when Cooder arrived in Havana, Compay was 89 years old and was the oldest of all those who participated in the recording, but his musical genius was still present.
On the track “Chan Chan” he joined Eliades Ochoa on vocals, In addition, he played on several songs of the album with a unique instrument, which he called “armónico / harmonic”, composed of seven strings, as a hybrid between a guitar and a tres.
Compay Segundo remained active for another five years and performed on several of the most prestigious stages in the world.
IBRAHIM FERRER’S ETERNAL VOICE
Cooder described Ibrahim Ferrer as the “Cuban Nat King Cole.” This artist had been part of several musical groups in the forties and even sang with the great Benny Moré. Juan de Marcos found him cleaning shoes in the streets of Havana and took him to the recording of the Buena Vista Social Club album. His voice was still spectacular, so he later made other solo albums and shared the stage with artists, such as Gorillaz.
OMARA PORTUONDO, THE BRIDE OF CUBAN “FILIN”
Omara Portuondo is one of the most recognized Cuban artists in the world. They call her “the bride the filin” (Cuban music genre), for the passionate way in which she defends that musical genre, which emerged in the forties in Havana.
She was part of the quartet known as Las D’Aida, along with her sister Haydée, Elena Burke and Moraima Secada. They shared the stage with other music greats, such as Edith Piaff, Rita Montaner, Bola de Nieve and Benny Moré. Later, Omara continued her solo career and recorded multiple albums.
In 1996 she was the only woman to participate in the initial album of the Buena Vista Social Club. Then, in 2000, World Circuit released Buena Social Vista Club presents Omara Portuondo, an excellent album in which Ruben Gonzalez, Orlando “Cachaíto” Lopez, Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal and Jesus “Aguaje” Ramos also participated. With this album she toured Japan, Europe, Canada, and the United States.
Over the next two decades, Omara continued to record; her impressive discography features more than 40 albums. In 2009 she received the Latin Grammy Award for Best Tropical Album, with “Gracias” and in 2019 she received the Latin Grammy’s lifetime award.
ELIADES OCHOA, THE MUSICIAN WITH THE BLACK HAT
Eliades Ochoa is considered one of the best soneros in history and a great defender of traditional Cuban music. Always wearing his trademark black cowboy hat, this guitarist, composer, and singer has performed on prestigious world stages.
Since 1979 he has directed and recorded several albums with Cuarteto Patria. On the Buena Vista Social Club album he was the lead vocalist of “Chan Chan” and played guitar on other tracks.
RUBEN GONZALEZ, A GENIUS ON THE PIANO
Ruben Gonzalez is considered one of the best Cuban pianists of all time. When recording the initial Buena Vista Social Club album he suffered from arthritis in his hands, but this did not prevent him from playing spectacularly. Cooder described him as “the greatest soloist on the piano I have ever heard”. Gonzalez went on to record the album Buena Vista Social Club presents Ruben Gonzalez and engaged in multiple international tours with his friend, bass master Orlando “Cachaíto” López.