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

By Michael Ellison
Wednesday 10 December 2003 01:00

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."

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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."


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

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