“Buena Vista Social Club” at 25: Memories of memories


There was also something about the sounds of “Buena Vista Social Club”. It was recorded in Havana’s venerable Egrem Studio in real time, on analog tape on a rickety recorder (which needed repairs on the first day of sessions), and without fancy post-processing, which also gave the music an additional patina. In 1996, you would never have had that piano sound in a studio in Los Angeles.

So in some ways it felt like the album was a time capsule. But that was not exactly the case; if you wanted a time capsule, you could easily listen to real vintage recordings. “Buena Vista Social Club” was also intentionally retro. As elegant as the musicality was, the singers’ voices were altered with age, and they sang romances from decades past. No one claimed that the years had not passed; part of the appeal was that the performers and songs had mellowed with age. The reissue includes a few alternate takes of songs, and to me it seems the original choices were the most relaxed and comfortable.

GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO Jon, I have a different memory that looks like a nice counterpoint to yours. I was in South Africa at the Cape Town Jazz Festival, a good fifteen years after your visit to Cuba. One of the featured artists, on the largest of the five stages, was the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club. There were “old” of course, but also younger musicians who had joined the group long after its founding in 1996, as it continued to tour – a sign of the strength of the nostalgic brand Buena Vista Social Club, but also Cuban music. They commanded the public. But a lot of what they played didn’t sound like what was on the original album; it sounded like a decidedly larger and more decidedly dancing sampling of traditional Cuban music.

On “Buena Vista Social Club”, the tempos are slower and the horns much rarer; it’s mostly guitars and vocals, the sound of musicians throwing something together in a Havana courtyard or around a kitchen table. So to your point, Jon, about this record which isn’t exactly a perfect time capsule, it looks a bit like these musicians remember these songs (a number of which are decades old originals by band members). That’s why it’s so rewarding to watch the documentary: you can see these musicians, as they perform, revel in what these songs mean to them.

Isabelia, in your opinion, I think the American public can often be guilty of thinking of listening to “world music” as an attempt to pin down or understand music from a foreign place, which leads to an impulse to freeze things, and ends in the kind of nostalgia you alluded to. I can never help but think of the “Buena Vista Social Club” in a lineage that runs through Alan Lomax and David Attenborough – recordings which dubiously offer to provide a keyhole view in an entire musical culture – as much as I think of it as a “Cuban” record.

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