Cut off from Western culture for decades as a result of the communist dictatorship, the city functioned as an artistic time capsule. In tiny cafés and pokey side-walk venues, veteran players were stuck in a glorious retro loop, performing in the same fashion as they had in the ’30s and the golden age of Cuban big band music. Cooder vowed to bring their rich vintage style, called ‘son’ by Cubans, to a wider audience.
Thus was born the phenomenon of the Buena Vista Social Club, a loose affliction of Cuban virtuosos whom Cooder discovered jamming in the Marianao neighbourhood of Havana (an original Buena Vista Social Club at Marianao had thrived through the ’30s and ’40s before closing under communism in the ’60s). The music was the focus of film maker Wim Wender’s 1999 documentary Buena Vista Social Club which chronicled the band members’ return to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York, a city most of them had not visited in 50 years.
A decade and a half on Buena Vista Social Club endures, even though several of the line-up have passed away. Today the group tours as 12-piece Orquestra Buena Vista Social Club and features original members Barbarito Torres (58) , trumpeter Guajiro Mirabal (80) and trumpeter/ musical director Jesus ‘Aguaje’ Ramos (62), supported by a younger generation including trumpeter Rolanda Luna, singers Carlos Calunga and Idania Valdes and Mirabal’s grandson, Guajirito.
Speaking shortly after the release of the movie Wenders described being dumbstruck upon encountering Buena Vista’s music for the first time.
“Ry Cooder played me a rough mix of the first album, shortly after he returned from his trip to Havana. I was totally electrified when I heard the music for the first time. I had never heard anything that contagious, warm, lively and so full of heartfelt experience. I remember I heard that rough cassette over and over that night. The next morning I asked Ry: “Hey, who are these kids you found in Havana? They’re incredible”. He laughed: “They are not exactly kids”.
As to the club’s name, Cooder explained that fraternal organisations for like-minded individuals were common throughout Latin American through the ’40s and ’50s. “Society in Cuba and in the Caribbean including New Orleans, as far as I know, was organised around these fraternal social clubs.
“At the Buena Vista Social Club, musicians went there to hang out with each other, like they used to do at musicians’ unions in the US, and they’d have dances and activities.”
Buena Vista Social Club remain as popular as ever — a testament to the unconquerable power of the human spirit and the universal reach of their music.
*Orquestra Buena Vista Social Club plays Cork Opera House, Jul 1.
— Ed Power