Buena Vista Social Club Celebrates 25th Anniversary

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25 years later, the seminal recording still matters.

(Photo: Courtesy World Circuit Records)

When World Circuit Records released Buena Vista Social Club’s eponymous album in 1997, there were no grand expectations. It seemed unlikely that a collection of Cuban hits from the 1940s, played by a jazz band consisting of youngsters accompanying an assembly of veteran musicians — many of them older than 60 — would be a hit. Unexpectedly, the record sold more than 12 million copies and won a Best Traditional Latin Album Grammy. It’s still the best selling album of Cuban music ever released in the U.S.

This year, World Circuit celebrates the 25th Anniversary of Buena Vista Social Club with a 32-track, double-album release. It includes the original record, alternative versions and some tracks that have never been released.

Two members of the ensemble, Eliades Ochoa and Omara Portuondo, spoke with DownBeat about the album’s origin and its impact on their lives.

“I was playing at the Queen Elizabeth Center in London when Nick Gold [World Circuit founder] asked if he could talk to me,” Ochoa said. “He was interested in making an album with musicians from Mali sitting in with Cuban musicians. I said, ‘Yes.’ When the African musicians didn’t show up, they invited some veteran players to come to the studio.”

With Ochoa’s help, Gold, producer Ry Cooder and project director Juan de Marcos González put together a group that became the Buena Vista Social Club. “Nick and Juan found the songs and we invited musicians in,” Ochoa said. “Many of us hadn’t seen each other in a while. We started making conversation and singing songs, some of them old songs we’d played many times before. I had a feeling something good would come out of the recording. With the power of the musicians, their history and the music, something magic happened in the studio. I knew the music was good, and the recorded sound was good, but what happened was a surprise. It changed my life and the lives of all the musicians on the project. When they went to bed, nobody knew who they were. They woke up and everybody in the world knew them. Every time we appeared at shows, we got a standing ovation, even before we played.”

Ochoa said he’s still in touch with musicians from the album. “A lot of us are not alive, but after Buena Vista Social Club, we felt like a big family.”

As Gold, Cooder and González were finalizing the lineup for the session, they went looking for a woman singer and chose Portuondo.

“I was recording in the same studio,” Portuondo said. “They called me in to sing a song. It was a surprise when I entered the room and saw them all, especially Ibrahim [Ferrer]. I hadn’t seen him in a long time. I proposed ‘Veinte Años,’ with Compay [Segundo], who sang harmony vocals. We recorded it without rehearsing. It was very natural.

“Many of us knew each other from before and there was a lot of admiration and affection for the younger musicians who were accompanying us. We really didn’t know what was going to happen with this project, or the huge global impact it was going to have — and is still having today — 25 years after the original recording. The songs were played in every corner of the world. We were able to visit many countries, meet a lot of people and participate in beautiful projects, both as a group and individually.

“This edition includes an amazing package, with photos that brought me so many memories, emotions and some tears, seeing pictures of my dears Rubén Gonzalez, Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Puntillita, Pio Leyva, my dear Guajiro Mirabal, Cachao, Roberto García and so many others. It is indeed a very emotional and beautiful edition. It gave me plenty of energy and inspires me to want to go back on tour with the remaining members to celebrate this 25th anniversary.” DB



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November 2021
Joey DeFrancesco
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