Buena Vista Social Club: Cuban Music Recaptures the World's Attention

Buena Vista Social Club, Carnegie Hall
JULY 01: CARNEGIE HALL Photo of BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB, Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo.

 Ebet Roberts / Getty Images

The Buena Vista Social Club (BVSC) is a multi-faceted project that sought to revitalize a traditional Cuban genre, called son, which had its heyday from the 1920s to the 1950s. BVSC includes various media, including recorded albums by various artists, a celebrated documentary by Wim Wenders, and many international tours. The BVSC was initiated in 1996 by American guitarist Ry Cooder and British world music producer Nick Gold and was chronicled in Wim Wenders' 1999 documentary.

The BVSC has had a major impact on the Cuban tourism industry, as many neo-traditional son groups have been formed in the past two decades to cater to the desires of tourists to hear similar music. If something like this happened today in the U.S., it would be akin to Chuck Berry and Elvis tribute groups springing up all over the country.

Key Takeaways: Buena Vista Social Club

  • Buena Vista Social Club revitalized the traditional Cuban genre called son, which was popular between the 1920s to the 1950s, introducing it to a contemporary audience.
  • BVSC includes recorded albums by various artists like Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer, a documentary by Wim Wenders, and international tours.
  • BVSC has been a major draw for the Cuban tourism industry, and new son groups have been formed to cater to tourists.
  • Although BVSC is beloved among international audiences, Cubans—while they appreciate the tourism it brings in—are notably less interested in or enthusiastic about it.

Cuba's Musical Golden Age

The period between 1930 and 1959 is often spoken about as Cuba's musical "golden age." It began with the "rumba craze" that was kicked off in New York in 1930 when Cuban bandleader Don Azpiazu and his orchestra performed "El Manicero" (The Peanut Vendor). From that point on, Cuban popular dance music—specifically the genres son, mambo and cha-cha-cha, which each have distinct features—became a global phenomenon, circulating to Europe, Asia, and even Africa, where it eventually inspired the emergence of Congolese rumba, now known as soukous.

The name "Buena Vista Social Club" was inspired by a danzón (a popular Cuban genre in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) composed by Orestes López in 1940 that paid homage to a social club in the Buena Vista neighborhood, in the outskirts of Havana. These recreational societies were frequented by black and mixed-race Cubans during a period of de-facto segregation; non-white Cubans weren't allowed in at the high-end cabarets and casinos in which white Cubans and foreigners socialized.

Tropicana nightclub, 1955
Exotic dancers at the Tropicana nightclub in Havana, Cuba, circa 1955.  Archive photos / Getty Images

This period also marked the height of American tourism to Cuba, as well as the famed nightlife scene centered on casinos and nightclubs like the Tropicana, many of which were funded and run by American gangsters like Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano, and Santo Trafficante. The Cuban government was notoriously corrupt during this period, with leaders—particularly dictator Fulgencio Batista—enriching themselves by facilitating American mafia investments on the island.

Batista's regime of corruption and repression fostered widespread opposition and eventually led to the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, led by Fidel Castro, on January 1, 1959. Casinos were shuttered, gambling was prohibited, and Cuba's nightclub scene effectively vanished, as they were seen as symbols of capitalist decadence and foreign imperialism, the opposite of Fidel Castro's vision for building an egalitarian society and sovereign nation. The recreational clubs frequented by people of color were also outlawed after the Revolution banned racial segregation, since they were believed to perpetuate racial division within society.

Buena Vista Social Club Musicians and Album

The BVSC project began with bandleader and tres (a Cuban guitar with three sets of double strings) player Juan de Marcos González, who had been leading the group Sierra Maestra. Since 1976, the group has aimed to pay homage to and preserve the son tradition in Cuba by bringing together singers and instrumentalists from the 1940s and 50s with younger musicians.

The project received little support in Cuba, but in 1996 British world music producer and director of the World Circuit label Nick Gold caught wind of the project and decided to record a few albums. Gold was in Havana with American guitarist Ry Cooder to record a collaboration between Cuban and African guitarists like Ali Farka Touré of Mali. However, the African musicians were unable to obtain visas, so Gold and Cooder made the spontaneous decision to record an album, Buena Vista Social Club, with the mostly septuagenarian musicians gathered by de Marcos González.

Buena Vista Social Club musicians
Cuba's Buena Vista Social Club, Compay Segundo and Omara Portuondo (seated L-R), (standing L-R) Guajiro Miraval, Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, Barbarito Torrez, Juan de Marcos and Ibrahim Ferrer, posing for photographers at a hotel in Mexico City before a press conference.  Jorge Uzon / Getty Images

These included tres player Compay Segundo, the oldest musician (89) at the time of recording, and vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, who had been making a living shining shoes. Vocalist Omara Portuondo was not only the sole woman of the group, but also the only musician who had enjoyed a continuously successful career since the 1950s.

It's important to point out that as a revitalization project, the initial BVSC album didn't sound exactly like the music played in the 1930s and 40s. Ry Cooder's Hawaiian slide guitar added a particular sound to the album that didn't exist in traditional Cuban son. In addition, while son has always been the foundation of BVSC, the project also represents other major Cuban popular genres, specifically bolero (ballad) and danzón. In fact, there are an equal number of sones and boleros on the album and some of the most popular—i.e., "Dos Gardenias"—are boleros.

Documentary and Additional Albums

The album won a Grammy in 1998, cementing its success. That same year, Gold returned to Havana to record the first of several solo albums, Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer. This would be followed up by roughly a dozen solo albums featuring pianist Ruben González, Compay Segundo, Omara Portuondo, guitarist Eliades Ochoa, and several others.

German filmmaker Wim Wenders, who had previously collaborated with Ry Cooder, accompanied Gold and Cooder to Havana, where he filmed the recording of Ferrer's album, which was the basis for his celebrated 1999 documentary Buena Vista Social Club. The rest of the filming took place in Amsterdam and New York, where the group played a concert at Carnegie Hall.

Omara Portuondo in Amsterdam
Cuban Singer Omara Portuondo (Buena Vista Social Club) performs on stage at Concertgebouw on April 17 2001 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Frans Schellekens / Getty Images

The documentary was a huge success, winning numerous awards and being nominated for an Academy Award. It also resulted in a major boom in cultural tourism to Cuba. Dozens (and likely hundreds) of local music groups have sprung up all over the island in the past two decades to cater to tourists' desires to hear music that sounds like BVSC. This is still the most common type of music heard in tourist zones in Cuba, although it's listened to by a very small segment of the Cuban population. The surviving members of BVSC performed an "Adios" or farewell tour in 2016.

Worldwide Impact and Reception in Cuba

Beyond driving cultural tourism to the island and performing all over the word, BVSC has increased the global consumption of Latin American music beyond Cuba. It has also meant international visibility and success for other Cuban traditional music groups, such as the Afro-Cuban All Stars, still touring and led by de Marcos González, and Sierra Maestra. Rubén Martínez writes, "Arguably, Buena Vista is the crowning achievement, thus far, of the 'world beat' era in both critical and commercial terms... it avoids the pitfalls of the same: exoticizing or fetishizing of 'Third World' artists and artifacts, superficial representations of history and culture."

Nonetheless, the Cuban perspective on BVSC is not so resoundingly positive. First, it should be noted that Cubans born after the Revolution don't generally listen to this type of music; it is music made for tourists. Regarding the documentary, Cuban musicians were somewhat put off by Wenders' narrative that presented traditional Cuban music (and Cuba itself, with its crumbling architecture) as a relic of the past that became frozen in time after the triumph of the Revolution. They point out that although the world wasn't aware of it until the opening of Cuba to tourism in the 1990s, Cuban music has never stopped evolving and innovating.

Other critiques relate to Ry Cooder's central role in the film, despite the fact that he lacks in-depth knowledge about Cuban music and even about the Spanish language. Finally, critics noted the lack of political context in the BVSC documentary, specifically the role of the U.S. embargo in preventing the flow of music both in and out of the island since the Revolution. Some have even described the BVSC phenomenon as "imperialist nostalgia" for pre-revolutionary Cuba. Thus, although BVSC is beloved among international audiences, Cubans—while they appreciate the tourism it brings in—are notably less interested in or enthusiastic about it.

Sources

  • Moore, Robin. Music and Revolution: Cultural Change in Socialist Cuba. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006.
  • Roy, Maya. Cuban Music: From Son and Rumba to the Buena Vista Social Club and Timba Cubana. Princeton, NJ: Markus Weiner Publishers, 2002.
  • "Buena Vista Social Club." PBS.org. http://www.pbs.org/buenavista/film/index.html, accessed 26 August 2019.