Music Updates

‘I Knew We Were Doing Something Important’: Buena Vista Social Club Remembered, 25 Years Later

With the help of González, they gathered a group of old-timers: Some of them, like guitarist Eliades Ochoa (the baby of the group at 50 at the time), Juan de Marco González and singer Omara Portuondo, were active performers; others, like pianist Ruben Gonzalez and Compay Segundo, had largely fallen off the radar. Key among them was Segundo — 89 years old at the time, and a prolific composer and singer who had been a legend of Cuban music — who Cooder and Gold were hellbent on including.

The musicians gathered, pulled by the presence of Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer, arriving at the recording studio most of them hadn’t set foot in for decades. They called themselves the Buena Vista Social Club, in honor of a social club shuttered by the Cuban government in the 1960s. And then, they played, and played, and played, recording more than 30 tracks, old and new.

Released in 1997, Buena Vista Social Club became one of the most unlikely crossover successes of the late 20th century: an album made by unknown senior Cuban musicians who played traditional music that somehow resonated internationally with Spanish and non-Spanish speakers alike. World Circuit reported in 2014 that the album had sold over 12 million copies globally — and in the U.S., it topped the Billboard World Albums and Latin Albums charts, remaining on the latter for 107 weeks. It also drew acclaim from mainstream stateside publications like SPIN, who listed it among their top 90 albums of the 90s, and Rolling Stone, who named it one of the 500 greatest albums of all time. The Buena Vista phenomena continued with a concert in Carnegie Hall — a feat during the embargo — and a 1999 Wim Wenders film, which was nominated for best documentary feature at the 2000 Academy Awards.

Last month, in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the album’s recording, World Circuit/BMG released a collection of 25th Anniversary Editions that includes the original album as well as previously unreleased tracks from the original 1996 tapes, among them alternate takes of some of the songs originally in the album. A quarter-century later, Gold, Cooder and Eliades Ochoa take us back to the original recording sessions in this brief oral history. (Conversations have been abbreviated and edited for clarity.)

Nick Gold: I had come to experience a lot of artists from Mali and Senegal playing Cuban repertoire, especially a band called Orquesta Baobab from Senegal. That led me to think it might be a comfortable fit to have Mali musicians go to Cuba and work with music from Santiago. I had never recorded in Cuba before.

Eliades Ochoa: I met Nick for the first time when I went to play two shows in London. He saw me, and told Juan de Marcos González that he wanted to speak to me after the concert. He congratulated me on the way I played the guitar, and right there, he proposed a project in Havana, recording with African musicians. I said yes. Nick Gold was very serious. He was very enthusiastic about this project, and he played the trumpet. His words carried strength and sincerity. He knew what he wanted, and I felt we would be in good hands.

Ry Cooder: Nick and I were friends and had worked together with Ali Farka Touré before that. He called me on the phone — this would have been in 94 or 95 — and said he felt the rhythms and melodies of the Cuban song form had travelled to West Africa, and some guitar players in Africa could play the songs. He was going to put them together with these trova players from Oriente, beginning with Eliades Ochoa who he had spoken with. He asked if I would come down to Havana and help him produce.

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