The Big Question: How did the Buena Vista Social Club become such a global phenomenon?


Why are we asking this now?



Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, the double bass player who became renowned as a member of the Cuban group Buena Vista Social Club, died on Wednesday in Havana. Aged 76, he was one of the last surviving members of the original group of hitherto unknown veteran musicians who burst on the scene in the late 1990s and proved that advanced age and the evocation of a bygone era could add up to chart success.

Lopez came from a family of Cuban musicians: his father Orestes and uncle Israel (a multi-Grammy winner who died in 2008) were bass players, known for pioneering mambo music by mixing Cuban and African styles. Lopez was the only musician to play on every song from the Buena Vista Social Club album, the 1997 release with which they made their name.

How did the group come about?

In 1996, Ry Cooder, an American guitarist famed for his work with Captain Beefheart, travelled to Cuba with Nick Gold, a leading world music producer whose company World Circuit Records is based in London. The pair's idea was to bring together African and Cuban musicians, but the plan fell through, and Cooder ended up recording with a few locals, their work previously hidden from the outside world because of Cuba's political isolation. Almost by accident, a global phenomenon was born.

What were its musical roots?

The group and its subsequent 1997 album were named after the Buena Vista Social Club, a members club in Havana where musicians would meet and play in the 1940s, prior to the Communist revolution. Many of the musicians assembled by Cooder and Gold were old enough to have played at the club in its prime, despite its closure almost half a century earlier.

"Buena Vista was very much a revival group," explains Charlie Gillett, the BBC radio presenter and world music expert. "Its repertoire was basically from the 40s, 50s and 60s. Nearly all of the album was made up of famous songs that people had performed or recorded previously – in one or two cases by actual members of the group. Cooder and Gold simply picked from a collective repertoire of neglected and forgotten songs that they really liked; they weren't at all concerned about fashionability." Indeed, the album's instrumental title track was originally written by Lopez's father, Orestes.

What did the album lead to?

The Buena Vista Social Club LP was released in September 1997 and became a huge word-of-mouth hit. It won a Grammy award in 1998 and, in the same year, the musicians' fame spread further thanks to an Oscar-nominated documentary also entitled Buena Vista Social Club.

The film, directed by Wim Wenders, followed the group from Havana to a triumphant performance at New York's Carnegie Hall. In October last year, World Circuit records released a live album of that performance, Buena Vista Social Club at Carnegie Hall.

Most of the group's members later released successful solo albums, including vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, who also recorded a duet with Damon Albarn's band Gorillaz. "It's striking how many musicians in Cuba subsequently found a livelihood playing this kind of music, even though, prior to Buena Vista, it had basically died away," Gillett says.

Why did this music strike such a chord with listeners?

According to Charlie Gillett, "In the 50s there were British bands playing a very old-fashioned, New Orleans style of music, and some of the surviving musicians from that period made a career from playing to an audience that didn't know or care how out of date it was; they just liked the sound. Buena Vista was the same phenomenon on a grander scale. It resonated with an audience around the world, most of whom had never heard the songs before. Although it had a nostalgic feel, it was received as new music despite its deep roots."

The album's appeal was only increased by its sense of immediacy and authenticity. "It was recorded with everyone playing at once, in the same room," Gillett says. "The blight of modern recording is that engineers dominate and make sure that every instrument is separately recorded. I think there was an unconscious relief that came with listening to this music au naturel."

Who were thegroup's stars?

Cooder's group consisted of 20 musicians including Lopez and Ferrer, the latter a highly successful singer the 1940s before seeing his soft singing style fall out of fashion. Ferrer was shining shoes for extra cash on the streets of Havana when he was asked to join the group; Cooder later described him as "The Cuban Nat King Cole." He died in 2005, aged 78. Pianist Ruben Gonzalez was piano-less and suffering from arthritis when Cooder asked him to play on the Buena Vista LP; he released two subsequent solo albums before his death in 2003. The oldest performer in the line-up was 89-year-old guitarist Compay Segundo, who also fronted his own band Los Muchachos until his death (at 95), also in 2003.

What part did it play in the rise of world music?

Since its original release, Buena Vista Social Club has sold seven million copies globally, making it the most successful world music album of all time, and opening the floodgates for a torrent of global talents hitherto unknown to most English-speaking audiences. "The age of musicians ceased to seem to matter for a while after Buena Vista," says Gillett, "and in many countries producers conspired to find comparable groups of people who were veterans in their field. There's a group of Congolese musicians based in Paris called Kekele, who've made about six or seven albums since Buena Vista, and I suspect they wouldn't have existed without the Cubans' success."

How has the Buena Vista Social Club contributed to Cuba's global image?

The album's success provided a boost to Cuba's growing tourist industry during the 1990s and, as The Economist noted in 2006, "in the tourist quarters of Old Havana it can seem at times as if every Cuban with a guitar has come out to sing the songs that Buena Vista made famous." The Buena Vista sound, however, doesn't necessarily represent modern Cuba, whose youth are today in thrall to other, more recent styles, such as salsa, reggaeton, heavy metal and hip-hop. Some experts argue that the album represents neither today's Cuba, nor the romanticised pre-revolution Cuba, but a figment of the tourism industry's imagination.

"Buena Vista was the acceptable face of communism," says Simon Calder, The Independent's travel editor and author of Cuba in Focus. "Particularly in the US, they proved that even within the cocoon imposed around Cuba by the Americans, Cuban culture had managed to flourish. In Cuba these days you will find a thousand Buena Vistas. You'll find a casa de la trova ("house of the troubadours") in every village, where everybody goes for music, for rum and for fun. It's a wonderfully anarchic cultural institution in the middle of a very ossified hardline communist regime. The record said, 'Here is the essence of Cuba'. It was as adventurous as Paul Simon going to South Africa to make Graceland and saying, 'There's some great music here everybody; you might not like the political situation under which it has developed, but have a listen anyway'."

Does the Buena Vista Social Club represent the true face of modern Cuba?

Yes...

* Its music remains the definitive sound of the proletariat in Cuba, which is pretty much everyone

* There are social clubs like the Buena Vista, where musicians gather, in every Cuban town and village

* The album presents a timeless Cuban sound, and so is as relevant today as it was decades ago

No...

* The Buena Vista sound is that of pre-revolution Cuba

* Modern Cubans are more interested in hip-hop, reggaeton and heavy metal

* The album was conceived, produced and marketed outside Cuba. Cubans were barely aware of its existence until much later

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