Charity records: Opening up new vistas

The Buena Vista Social Club team up with rock music's biggest names in a new charity record. Phil Meadley reports
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The Independent Culture

Ever since the likes of Bono, Bob Geldof and Sting decided they wanted to change the world through music - while jetting back and forth between their palatial residences - the idea of a celebrity charity album has generated both derision and division. Whether this is because people don't like being preached at by overpaid rock stars, or whether there's general apathy about yet another charity asking for our money, there's a mountain of suspicion to climb when undertaking such a task, however noble the cause.

So, when the producer and founder of APE (Artists' Project Earth) Kenny Young decided that he wanted to do something to help victims of natural disasters and to raise awareness about climate change, he knew it had the potential to be a bumpy ride.

"The idea first came to me after I had stayed with a friend at his house in the south of Sri Lanka, a few months before the tsunami hit," Young says. "After the disaster, I felt that I wanted to do something to help at a local level, because the village I had been staying in was pretty much wiped out and a lot of people lost their lives, or their livelihoods."

While attending the Sundance Film Festival, he came up with the notion of asking members of the Buena Vista Social Club to collaborate with some of the biggest names in Western rock and pop, and set about trying to find a way to make it happen.

"If you do something that is both Western and brings in elements of world music, then I think that you can reach a lot more people," he says. "And also, involving major artists means that it's easier to reach a mainstream audience with the message."

Previously, Young had set up a rainforest conservation organisation called Earth Love Fund, which had tried to follow a similar path. "I remembered that Sting had done a track for us called 'Fragile'. Initially, he sent us a Spanish take but I really wanted the English version at the time. Even though this was a few years ago, I remembered the Spanish version, and so got in touch with him to ask him if we could use it for this project." Young then flew to Havana and met up with Buena Vista musical arrangers Miguel Patterson and Demetrio Muniz. The ABDALA studios in Havana were booked, and the process began in earnest, with many of the Buena Vista percussionists and trumpet players, including Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal, being roped in.

On his return to the UK, Young set about contacting Chris Martin. "I really wanted 'Clocks' because I thought it would lend itself well to Cuban rhythms." Among the acts whom Young then approached were the Kaiser Chiefs ("Modern Way"), Franz Ferdinand ("The Dark of the Matinée"), U2 ("I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For") and Radiohead ("High and Dry"), with specific tracks in mind. "I was careful about the songs I used, because I knew which ones would lend themselves to the project."

In most cases he acquired the parts to the tracks and then took them to Havana. Possibly the finest remake is Arctic Monkeys' "Dancing Shoes", which brings something startlingly fresh to the original composition. Muniz humorously describes the result as "Santiaguera conga". "I had to beg their manager to let me use the track," says Young. "But the band themselves were very pleased with the result and so were their record company.

"By the time we recorded 'Dancing Shoes' I'd really honed in on what would or wouldn't work," he continues, "With the Monkeys track we redid the percussion and it worked perfectly."

As well as members of the Buena Vista family, Cuban vocalist Coco Freeman recorded the lead vocal's for Franz Ferdinand's "The Dark of the Matinee" after Alex Kapranos insisted that his vocals were taken out, and El Lele from the band Los Van Van sang Thom Yorke's part on Radiohead's "High and Dry".

Perhaps most poignant was Ibrahim Ferrer's contribution, as he died 10 days after recording "As Time Goes By". "The fact he sung that song summed things up perfectly. He was wonderful and very generous with his time and gift," says Young.

Omara Portuondo record-ed a duet of the same song with Ferrer, as well as recording her Cuban take of "Killing Me Softly". "Omara is a great singer and a unique professional," says Muniz. "She immersed herself in the mood of the songs and gave everything in front of the mike."

The tracks weren't chosen for any particular lyrical message, and Young believes that many artists now shy away from anything controversial. "They're reminded constantly by the powers that be that if they want to maintain their popularity they should either be more commercial or more predictable," he says.

Although it's easy to be cynical about celebrity charity albums, one made with such integrity and passion, and that turns out as entertaining as this one, is hard to resist.

'Rhythms Del Mundo' is released on 20 November on UMTV