‘Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club’: The revival of ‘son cubano’ and the band’s farewell tour
It was not my first concert of ‘Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club’, but the excitement was unchanged. On a July night of this
very hot summer, I attended their last Italian concert, part of their worldwide ‘Adiós Tour’. It took place in the beautiful gardens of ‘Villa Arconati’, not far from Milan. When I went to their previous concert thirteen years ago, Ruben Gonzales, the piano virtuoso, and Ibrahim Ferrer, the voice, were still around. Nowadays, six of the original band members have passed away. But I must say that the ‘partly renewed’ Orquesta (whose leading members are Omara Portuondo, Guajiro Mirabal, Barbarito Torres, Jesus “Aguaje” Ramos and Eliades Ochoa) could still create and recreate great magic on stage.
The story of these musicians and of the incredible recognition they obtained when many of them had already retired, is quite well known but still captivating.
By the end of the Sixties, the Cuban musical tradition of danzóns, habaneras, boleros and son had waned and two of the main protagonists, Rubén González and Ibrahim Ferrer, had been forced to leave the musical scene. González was a virtuous piano player with a good run in Arsenio Rodriguez’ band, in the Forties. But musical tastes in Cuba were changing. He found himself jobless and had no choice but to retire. Ibrahim Ferrer had some moments of moderate recognition, but soon he did not find any more fortune with the singing of his romantic boleros. His career was over, although he never forgot what a ‘santero’, an Afro-Cuban priest, had told him: he would have become ‘someone’ at the end of his life. As the santero had predicted, Ibrahim was part of a reinvented story, together with Rubén González, Compay Segundo (who was over 90 years old) and others, when the album ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ came out at the end of the Nineties and topped the charts all over the world.
The name ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ comes from a members’ only venue that opened in Cuba from the 1940s to the early 1960s. Different artistic activities and musical happenings were taking place at this club. The ‘son cubano’ developed there and became one of the most outstanding local musical forms. Son’s original musical structures can be retraced to the second half of XIX century and they combine Hispanic and Afro-Cuban style and elements.
The Cuban Revolution (1953-59) changed the cultural scene a lot. The newly elected president, Manuel Urrutia Lleó, started
closing down outlets and nightclubs that were becoming, in his view, the expression of an indulgent lifestyle. Celebrations and festivities, once the cultural and social centres were no longer available, slowly became a private matter, limited to weekend parties. The Buena Vista Social Club shut its doors as well, and its funds were confiscated. In the meantime, despite some government support for traditional Cuban music, the emergence of pop, jazz music and salsa (a combination of son, mambo and rumba that originated in USA), was slowly substituting the original Cuban forms of music. Among these, the ‘son cubano’.
American guitarist Ry Cooler visited Havana in 1996 with the aim of working with the old Cuban musicians. Nobody expected that the resulting album ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ would have sold, as of today, over eight millions copies. Other ‘solo’ albums followed and Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén Gonzáles, Eliades Ochoa, Compay Segundo and Omara Portuondo cut their own album as well.
I have been always very interested in following the musical rebirth of these artists, and therefore welcomed with great interest the documentary ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ directed by Wim Wenders in 1999 and that earned an Oscar Nomination. It is an outstanding testimony of how these artists regained their well-deserved recognition. It was especially moving to see how the group of seasoned musicians, many of whom had never left Cuba, travelled to New York and were welcomed by a enthusiastic audience during their live performance at the Carnegie Hall, in 1998.
Some time ago, I read an interesting article on ‘The Guardian’ (‘Buena Vista Social Club: The legends look back’, by Laura Barton – 22.03.2015) which highlighted two conflicting aspects of the successful popularity of Buena Vista Social Club. On one hand, with the changed relationship between Cuba and the rest of the world, these musicians helped modify the world’s perception of their country. Those who knew nothing about Cuban music thought that what was played by Buena Vista Social Club was ‘the’ Cuban music, while in fact it represented just one particular style. In a way though, the success of the band helped people outside the Latin world listen to music that was not only in English.
On the other end, it seems that the rich variety of Cuban music got ignored, as the focus had been, in the last seventeen years, on the band and on its achievements. Robin D. Moore, Professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Texas, specializing in the music of Cuba, says that nostalgia and mystique contributed to the success of the band. But he feels that there is a disconnect between what the tourist want and what the Cubans are listening to; between the old musicians and what had happened in Cuba in the last 40 years. Cuban music is timba, salsa cubana, local folklore drums, etc. Following the success of the band, their music has been played everywhere in Cuba and many copycat bands have been sprouting, for the joy of the tourists. Was then the Buena Vista collective only an artificial creation, whose rise identified with the increase of tourism, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of Cuba to the capitalistic world, as Professor Moore believes?
I am sure that for those who put together the band, Ry Cooler and Nick Gold, a world music producer, the feeling was surely different. It was about passion for tunes that had no longer been played in public for quite a long time, about the rediscovery of the artists’ musical roots and about recreating an ‘atmosphere’. It was also about getting these people together in one room and waiting for the miracle to happen, without even predicting what could come out of those instruments and voices. It was about reveling, rejoicing and socializing through music.
That was what I felt during their concert too. The musicians and the singers became actors. They improvised and they clearly enjoyed themselves. They told jokes and created magical vibes and connections within the band and with the public as well. A screen showed footage and pictures of the band’s members that are no longer here, and of their personal stories. Their songs and pieces were played and performed masterfully, as a tribute to their bravura.
We waited for Omara Portuondo to come on stage for a good hour. She finally appeared, dressed in one of her colourful, long attires and sporting a head turban. She is now 85 and started singing at the age of 15, performing with the likes of Nat King Cole. During the show, she danced and twisted, improvised moves with a band member, clapped and cheered with the crowd – that was by then religiously following her singing – with her irresistible charm and energy. Standing ovation and feet thumping on the wooden planks loudly asked the Orquesta not to go, not to say farewell, even after their encores.
I left the gardens with the band’s great classic pieces in my ears: Chan Chan, Dos Gardenias, Candela, El Quarto de Tula. I felt exultant, but nostalgic for a musical revival that was, this time, truly coming to an end. I hope that some passionate musicians will be able to follow in Orquesta’s footsteps and pick up, with seriousness and professionalism, the meaningful legacy of any old Cuban musical tradition that may risk to be lost.
In the meantime, I am looking forward to listening to the voices and instruments of ‘Orquesta Buona Vista Social Club’ once more. They will perform in Hong Kong for their ‘Adiós Tour’ in March 2016, during the Hong Kong Arts Festival.