Cuban pianist who starred in Buena Vista Social Club dies at 84

The surprise at first, for those few who cared then, was that the ancient Cuban musicians were still alive. Now, though, seven years down the road none of them ever expected to travel, the geriatrics who became a fixture on the CD players, screens and coffee tables of the developed world are beginning to fall away.

First, it was Compay Segundo, the Buena Vista Social Club singer and guitarist. And yesterday the death of 84-year-old Ruben Gonzalez, the by turns playful and gymnastic pianist, was announced. The musician with the fried white hair had suffered from, among other things, arthritis and lung and kidney problems. "He was ill for months but remained at home," said his wife, Eneida Lima.

As epitaphs go that hardly rates with the estimation of Ry Cooder, the guitarist and ethnomusicologist, after they had worked on the Buena Vista album: "He is the greatest piano soloist I have ever heard in my life. A cross between Thelonius Monk and Felix the Cat."

Famously, Gonzalez did not even have a piano when Cooder and co showed up in Havana in 1996, though he retained a regret that he had never completed his studies to become a doctor. Soon the album was the default soundtrack for every trip to the bookshop and thousands of dinner parties. Wim Wenders's 1999 movie of the same name turned Buena Vista into a phenomenon. Seven million sales later it was the best-selling world music CD.

But its influence went further. Without the success of the band of largely forgotten traditional musicians it is unlikely, for instance, that novels such as Pedro Juan Gutierrez's Dirty Havana Trilogy or Outcast by Jose Latour would have seen the light of the English-language day quite so readily.

Cooder has taken most of the credit for the project, though much of it is due to Nick Gold, founder of the World Circuit label in London. "Working with him [Gonzalez] was the most enjoyable experience I've ever had in the studio," Gold said yesterday. "He was very exciting or moving or both in how he played. When we arrived in Havana he was sitting at the piano, started playing and I was blown away. I think it was playing to an audience again that he enjoyed so much because he hadn't really done that for 10 or 15 years.

"He was quite bohemian and lived very much for the day. The other Cubans even referred to him as a hippie. And he was a vegetarian, which is very unusual for a Cuban. He didn't look at where the schedule was going to take him; he just woke up and asked where we were today: London? Paris? Rome?

"He was a laugh, that's what he was. When I heard he was dead I was quite upset but now I think of him and just smile."

Cooder said of the album: "It was a fluke. But then again we couldn't really miss. Buena Vista was a sampler for people who'd never heard Cuban music. On one record they could hear all the best people in Cuba doing their thing."

Gonzalez was quite clear about the precise nature of his thing, or things: "Playing the piano - that is what I like most in life - and sex."

HASTA LA VISTA: WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

RUBEN GONZALEZ : Pianist. Died at home in Havana on 8 December 2003, age 84.

COMPAY SEGUNDO: Vocals, guitar and congas. Died 13 July 2003, age 95. Secrets to a long life included "Cuban cigars" and "just enough sex ... not too much".

IBRAHIM FERRER: Vocals, bongos, clave. Age 76. Still leads Buena Vista Social Club, accompanied by 18-piece band. Played at the Park Lane Hilton hotel last month, with proceeds to the Red Cross. Full touring schedule planned for next year. His albumBuenos Hermanos is nominated for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album for the Grammy awards in February 2004.

CACHAITO LOPEZ: Bassist. Age 70. Member of Ibrahim Ferrer's band. Also plays on all of World Circuit's Buena Vista releases, including his 2001 solo album Cachaito.

GUAJIRO MIRABAL: Trumpet. Age 70. Still performs with Buena Vista. Recording material for Buena Vista Social Club album to be released next year as tribute to Cuban band leader Arsenio Rodriguez.

ELIADES OCHOA: Vocals, guitar. Age 57. Most recent album, Estoy Como Nunca, was nominated for the Grammy award for Best Traditional Tropical album in July 2003. Continues to collect hats.

RY COODER: Electric slide guitars, guitar, oud, bolon, mbira, percussion. Age 56. Living in California. Released Mambo Sinuendo with Manuel Galban in January.

OMARA PORTUONDO: Vocals. Age 73. Most recent album Buena Vista Social Club Presents Omara Portuondo released 2000. Recording album and planning US tour.

JUAN DE MARCOS GONZALEZ: Conductor, guiro, background vocals. Age 49. Made four albums as Afro-Cuban All-Stars. Set up studio in Havana and "never has to work again".

Genevieve Roberts

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice