The Jazz.com Blog
November 04, 2008 · 0 comments
In the aftermath of a long political campaign, it is worth dwelling on those rare moments when musicians put their unexpected stamp on the global-political situation. According to some accounts, Dave Brubeck’s performance at the 1988 Gorbachev-Reagan summit contributed in no small degree in reducing the tension at this important event. Almost exactly thirty years earlier, Van Cliburn had done his part to un-chill the Cold War with his first place finish at the 1958 International Tchaikovsky Competition. And then, 40 years after Van Cliburn, we have the surprising rise to fame of the Buena Vista Social Club.
The recent release of the music from the band’s July 1, 1998 concert at Carnegie Hall give us an opportunity to look back on this ensemble and its fascinating story. Indeed, in the long history of popular music, few bands have enjoyed a more unlikely success than the Buena Vista Social Club.
Who would have anticipated that these musicians largely forgotten even in their native Cuba, would somehow enjoy a hit record in the United States almost a half century after their careers had gone into decline? Yes, they had achieved some local renown in Cuba during the 1940s, but even then their reputation had not traveled far. Yet the intervention of guitarist Ry Cooder and producer Nick Gold in 1996, and later filmmaker Wim Wenders' successful documentary, gave these old men unexpected exposure, an opportunity which they magically turned into stardom.
The group’s 1997 CD, simply entitled Buena Vista Social Club, is now a legitimate and defining classic of the World Music genre. It has sold more than 8 million copies—more than any other recording of Cuban music in history—and is one of only two albums made in a non-English speaking country to be included in Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”
Yet this project almost never happened. Cooder and Gold had hoped to make a recording matching Highlife musicians from Mali with Cuban performers. But the African artists could not get visas, and in a spirit of ingenuity and desperation, Cooder and Gold pulled together an album over a period of six days in Havana, relying entirely on local musicians.
Say what you will about pianist Rubén González (born in 1919), vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer (born in 1927), instrumentalist Compay Segundo (born in 1907) and their colleagues, but you can’t claim that they lacked experience. Only someone as venerable as Segundo could get away with describing Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader of almost four decades at that time, as "the new guy." Flippancy? Not really. Remember that the battleship Maine was still sailing around Havana harbor less than ten years before Segundo was born.
Of course, not everyone in the band was quite so old. Younger participants, such as bandleader Juan de Marcos González and guitarist / singer Eliades Ochoa, imparted a bit of vitality to the proceedings. The end result was an exceptional body of performances by smart and seasoned musicians who had spent a few collective centuries immersed in the aural traditions of their native country.
Success built slowly for the band's 1997 release. Every week, shipments inched up, as word of mouth spread about the Buena Vista Social Club. The enthusiasm of World Music fans was just the start. Soon this music was everywhere, crossing over to many who had never purchased a recording by a Spanish-speaking act before, or even those middle-aged consumers, usually lost to the music industry, who hardly pay attention to any new pop releases. Buena Vista Social Club was more than a big seller, it was a cultural phenomenon. In the aftermath, an artist such as Compay Segundo would find himself performing for everyone from the "new guy (i.e., Fidel Castro) to Pope John Paul II, and he could watch his composition “Chan Chan”—which he wrote around the time he turned 80—become enshrined as one of the most popular Latin songs in history.
The band certainly benefited from the hype and the odd PR angles that these musicians provided. But the music more than lived up to the publicity campaign. In fact, the music drove this unlikely success, bringing these musicians a wide audience that no amount of marketing can deliver. All this is captured on the dramatic live recording from Carnegie Hall—a track from which (“Chan Chan”) is featured as the current Song of the Day at jazz.com.
This blog article posted by Ted Gioia.