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The Buena Vista Social Club Turns 20

The biggest things to happen to traditional Cuban music in the last 20 years were The Buena Vista Social Club film and albums. This ensemble group of master musicians from Cuban music’s glory days in the 40s and 50s was a huge hit all over the world and gave these viejitos their greatest fame at the very end of their lives. This groundbreaking album turns 20 this week.

The Buena Vista Social Club was the somewhat accidental project of American slide guitarist Ry Cooder (ed. note: HA! Cooder). Cooder travelled to Cuba in 1996 to record some Mali musicians, but when these didn’t show up because of Visa issues, he decided to assemble a super group of old Cuban son musicians and record them instead. Most of these guys had been retired for years. Lead singer Ibrahim Ferrer was shining shoes for extra money. Many thought pianist Ruben Gonzalez was already dead. The rest of the band was comprised of 95-year-old guitarist Compay Segundo, tres player Eliades Ochoa, singer Omara Portoundo, and many others.

They called themselves The Buena Vista Social Club after a private club and dance venue from pre-revolutionary times, a place where rich white guys with money would hang out and hire the Cuban big bands of the 40s and 50s to play for them. The idea was that it hearkened back to the romanticized past of Cuba’s heyday as a cosmopolitan city full of dancing girls and daiquiris. Basically, it was just like The Godfather 2.

German director Wim Wenders went to Havana with Cooder and made a documentary about the recording. He also filmed the band playing concerts in Amsterdam and New York’s Carnegie Hall. The film was a big hit. It even received an Oscar nomination in 2000 for “Best Documentary Feature.” It featured these old dudes talking about the good old days and reflecting on the irony that they probably had only a few years to enjoy their new found fame.

Though most of the older guys have gone to the great dance hall in the sky, their legacy left a renewed interest in traditional forms of Cuban music. When you go to Havana today you’ll hear the original songs from the album such as “Chan Chan” and “El Cuarto de Tula” along with Cuban classics from the past. Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, and Ruben Gonzalez were buried in Havana’s famous Cementerio de Colon with full state honors. Fidel himself even made an appearance at the funeral. While there is something tragic about the fact that these incredibly talented musician spent most of their lifetimes in obscurity, it’s comforting to know that their the world was exposed to their talents before they kicked the bucket.

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