'Buena Vista Social Club': the sound that became synonymous with Cuba

11 June 2017 - 02:00 By Bongani Madondo

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the release of 'Buena Vista Social Club'. Bongani Madondo explores how this album became a cultural milestone in the history of Cuba — and the worldIt has been 20 fat, lean, and freaky years since the album Buena Vista Social Club healed us with its songs. Ay, wait, cariño. My son Cuba turns a blooming two years old today. Cute as his dad, naughty as "mohmee!"Cuba was born to this sad, blue mother Earth still kept somewhat sane with slivers of optimistic ebullience and soppy tales of romance. Perhaps he was percussioned into this world to the sound of the island's heart-snatching music, music known for its game of dare and embrace: a sonic blend of the island's traditional changui, Yoruba's religious abakua, son, merengue, soukos and salsa.A musical mélange the colour of midnight indigo.My late granny was right. Every creation needs its sound, every evolutionary phase its poets and every revolution its soundtrack. Every birth its screams.Even the belligerent, Thatcher-era, Toried, pilloried and soul-tortured British chavs listened to pugnacious white-boy blues such as the Stones' Exile on Main St. and Led Zeppelin's Kashmir on their mama's stereos before creating that liberating noise called punk.But this is not one of my beloved raw-kin-roll stories. This is the story of how a rag-tag band of Latino anciano abuelos stole my heart and might unwittingly have inspired life: birth and rebirth.It is also a story about stories.About a mystical revival tent I entered through the hypnotic chant of music and from which I never cared to emerge. It is partly the story about how a band I adored, and a country that looms large in my dreams (perhaps it should remain there, why spoil it?) might have inspired the name and life of my son, Cuba.And it is about the revival of three phenomena - the South American version of the hybrid pop called world music, Cuban tourism, and the romance of la revolución you hear and feel gripping the entire world, from #RhodesMustFall to post-Trump pink-pussy hats marching to the White House and the recent election in France, with its romantic whiff of the French Revolution.For me, how the romance of radical chic plays itself out in hard and dangerous times is spelt out in the phrase "Buena Vista Social Club".What sparked it all? Was it the Grammy-winning album produced by Ry Cooder, or the Wim Wenders documentary, both named after the Havana institution where the music was born?The 1997 album preceded the film's release by two years, but it was the latter that ignited a bushfire frenzy. But wait. That's not even half the story.The original Buena Vista Social Club was, like Dorkay House and the Odin - both at the centre of all Sophiatown lore - merely a place where musicians met in the heart of old "Habana".It closed down long before the 1959 revolution and the cultural and financial embargo the US introduced against Cuba in 1962. The exact date of its demise has not been recorded. But of course the music didn't die. It continued to be played until guitar legend Cooder unearthed it for international release.In 1996, Cooder, a washed-out gringo blues rocker with nimble fingers on the slide-guitar, circumvented the embargo and sneaked into Cuba via Mexico to record an album in the space of six days. A fact that ethnomusicologists and their marketing sidemen never tire of telling us. All the same, it is shrouded in apocrypha.The facts: buoyed by the wild reception of the 1989 CD issue of Pirate's Choice, an album from Senegalese band Orchestra Baobab, Nick Gold, head of the London-based record label World Circuit, contracted a bunch of Malian musicians to fly to Cuba for a spiritual excavation. The assignment was simple: find the local musicians rooted in traditional musical genres and orchestrate a cultural collaboration.There are different stories, but the one that stuck is that the Malians did not get beyond Bamako's airport because their papers were in shambles. Meanwhile, back in old town Habana, Cooder had snuck in and, with the help of young local guitarist Juan de Marcos González, assembled a band of veteran Cuban musicians who had last played an instrument around the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion.In six days clean they had recorded the Buena Vista Social Club album, a 14-track gumbo named after its recording venue, and music mythology was born.After a slow start it exploded onto international charts and featured in dinner-table chat from Rio to Helsinki, Jozi to Kuala Lumpur. Today it has sold more than 10 million copies - quite astonishing for a collection of tunes performed by a substitute outfit who played together long before man stepped on the moon.Then came the Grammy and then, in 1998, came the performance at Carnegie Hall that formed the basis of Wenders' documentary feature on the making of the record.The success of both album and film kick-started a tourism boom in a country vacillating between yearning for the unshackling power of the dollar and battling to protect Cuba's cultural heritage, stubbornly kept aflame by its people's pride.It almost never happened.Time was not anyone's side. All the assembled abuelos - Compay Segundo, Rubén González, Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Eliades Ochoa and a large supporting ensemble - were over 50 by the time the record and the film came out.The musicians and the charm, temperament, pace, and style of the music are throwbacks to another era, long before Tito Puente and Celia Cruz rocked New York and the "new world" and Habaneros taught the pre-Cold War world how to mambo.In the post-war 1950s, the city of Havana was a neon-lit lair that attracted the fastest, toughest and slimiest characters from "the West". The macho novelist Ernest Hemingway kept digs in the city; indulged in its cigars and caught fish as humongous as Papa himself.The crooner with mafioso ties, Frank Sinatra, and his Cuban counterpart Beni More filled the cash tills. Continental playboys such as the Dominican race driver and polo player Porfirio Rubirosa played hard and caught fish and human prey alike.While the majority of the island's citizens were kept under the brutal dictatorship and subsisted on meagre salaries, sultry, hot Latino thangs competed with blondes from the US for the attention of royals and the kings of the boulevard. Sounds of Afro-Cuban jazz, salsa, danzón and Dominican merengue wafted, like cigar smoke, into the tropical night.In 1959, after several attempts, arrests and exile, the Castro brothers led la revolución that broke the slime-fest ball.The capitalist joyride had run its course. The voices of students, ferry workers, farm hands, and ordinary folks were finally being heard in the new Cuba.Cuba's system of capitalism died with the shady crowd that, alas, took a large contingent of paying music fans with it. The industry collapsed. Musicians, composers, club crooners and street performers were left without an audience.The state-sponsored Egrem Music, a large recording company with good equipment, stayed afloat but, even with state patronage, session musicians lost their jobs as tourists bolted to Miami.Some innovative and passionate artists flooded the streets to hustle, while others, like Ferrer, were reduced to working as cobblers on the boulevard.Fifty years on. The revolution has been televised countless times, the reel has gone grainy, sexing up the memory, but its scars are all over Havana.The city appears to have survived a rhythmic carpet-bombing. Tourists are streaming back in. Pop's new feminist revolutionary, Beyoncé, owns a villa there. Rihanna shoots covers for Vanity Fair on Habana's La Rosa street. She struts the avenidas like Naomi Campbell in the Vedado district. She models for Annie Leibovitz in sequinned hot pants, with Chevy Impalas and the Paladar La Guardia as the backdrop. Click!Truth is, Havana still looks fucked. The US saw to it that it remained so over the 50 years of the revolutionary government. Yet, Nagasaki post-World War 2 it ain't.  That's one of the beautiful aspects of city, country and its besieged dreams that Wenders aimed to show. His film opens with the most memorable establishment shot you'll find this side of Pulp Fiction.In the Wenders intertextual film (a story within a story, visual narrative in a tango tussle; moving picture consumed with, and as, painterly sonic vignettes ... shhtp!: listen to Chan Chan), father and son sweep into town in bright lime-and-orange shirts, swept up by the city's warm sea breeze, and as a viewer you are left licking your lips.Stupendous, indulgent cinematic beauty for its and your sake.Cooder tracked down one of Cuba's famous oldies, Ibrahim Ferrer, who in turn traced other former greats. No one could have foreseen that this album, recorded in under a week, would become a cultural milestone in the history of Cuba and the world.When I watched the film about the making of the album for the first, second and 10th time, I never imagined I would have children, nor that I would name the second, the boy, a little banana peel, Cuba.The unwritten beauty of Buena Vista Social Club is located, essentially, in its self-perpetuating mythology. To this day, many imagine the ensemble continued to perform together.They can't. Most are dead.                                    The original troupe had only one album and one world tour, though World Circuit released a series of albums under the umbrella Buena Vista Social Club Presents.In hindsight, the best album spawned by Buena Vista Social Club is not a Buena Vista Social recording at all, but a masterpiece by Orchestra Baobab, self-lovingly entitled Specialists in All Styles.History has a way of dancing in full circles. Remember, the Dakar outfit in a way lit up this whole journey from the beginning.On this album, the muezzin-like voice of Ferrer, who features in two songs, out-howls, out-wails and out-weeps the world's most heart-wrenching wailers, including Senegal's Yossou N'Dour and Orchestra Baobab's falsetto bird Ndiouga Dieng.Out of a psychic bond between Cuban morna and African saudade - sorrow for those lost kin in the slave trade's Middle Passage - issued a profound sound reminiscent of a midnight pack of hyenas or a long-abandoned slide guitar: beauty relayed in sonic hues. I played my album for weeks when we were wxpecting our boy, two tough years ago.This is the story of a distant people with a mystic closeness to Africa, a people who birthed a music expression that inspired a film, which influenced the ritual of naming a boy who is intensely a part of me forever. These are ruminations I will fight eventual memory lapse to beguile him with, again and again. Ingom' emnandi 'ya phindwa! 

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