The story of the album Buena Vista Social Club is a fascinating look into Cuban culture, identity, and the lengths one will go to record an album. Released in 1997, this amazing album of Son Cubano music helped to revitalize interest worldwide in Latin American and Cuban music and put a group of old and experienced Cuban musicians on the music map. This project was started by renowned American guitarist Ry Cooder and involved a plan to go to Cuba and record an album with local Cuban musicians. The musicians involved in the recording were either pioneering Cuban musicians or musicians who played at the Buena Vista Social Club during the 1940s and 1950s. The Buena Vista Social Club was a membership club in Havana that held dances and music events for several decades before being closed during the Cuban Revolution.
The style of music heard on this album is a traditional style from Cuba called Son Cubano; this was a style of music that originated in Cuba during the early 20th century and combines elements of Spanish Cancion and Spanish guitar with African rhythms. As a style of music, Son Cubano can either be played in the form of up-tempo rhythmic dance numbers or slow ballads often with a female singer. Tracks on the album like “El Cuarto de Tula” and “Candela” have a strong rhythmic element to them that includes bongos and other percussive instruments, whereas “Dos Gardenias” and “Veinte Anos” are examples of the slower ballad with there being less percussion and a stronger emphasis placed on the vocal delivery and emotion in the song. These types of slower songs are also known as Boleros, which is a Latin American genre of slow-tempo tunes.
There are so many things on this album that catch my attention every time I listen to it, while as you listen you can’t help but be engrossed by the sound. The amazing rhythmic textures on display ensures that foot tapping may ensue when listened to alone, while all-out dancing is a guarantee if listened to loudly with others. The virtuosity of the musicians is a clear standout, with the amazing guitar and trumpet playing, in particular, driving these songs home. The singing itself is also incredible when you consider the musicians playing on this record were all either in their 70s, 80s, or 90s. The way in which they deliver these songs with so much emotion and with such beautiful voices considering their age is ear-catching, to say the least, and allows the listener to picture the streets of Havana where these songs have been played for decades. This really is a musical journey like no other.
On its release, the album got a positive reaction in the music press and subsequently has been ranked 260 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, one of only two albums on that list that were produced in a non-English speaking country. A film was also made in connection with the album documenting the process of the recording and the subsequent concert that took place in the U.S. Buena Vista Social Club is quite simply an amazingly good album of amazing traditional Cuban folk music. It is a must listen for anyone remotely into music irrespective of what you are into musically. Recommend for anyone with a good set of ears and a foot that taps.