As part of the Hispanic Heritage Month in Ottawa, the National Art Centre is hosting a tribute to the legendary Cuban ensemble who recorded and performed Buena Vista Social Club around the world. The tribute on October 12th is led by Ottawa’s very own piano master Miguel de Armas and features Canada’s finest Cuban musicians.
Before the awards, accolades, Emmys, performances at Carnegie Hall and the White House for President Obama, they were just forgotten musicians that were brought together, and in some cases, even forced out of retirement, in a Havana recording studio by Juan de Marco González, Nick Gold and Ry Cooder with a simple dream of getting back to the roots of Afro-Cuban music.
1997 was the seminal year Buena Vista Social Club album was released. Juan, Nick and Ry were considering doing a big band album with the stars of the 50s Cuban music, but somewhere along the journey decided on doing an album based on Cuban music that had been coming from the African roots mixing with European sounds over the years.
When Nick God was at school, he used to work at a jazz shop in London, England. That is where he encountered a record by Arsenio Rodríguez which changed his life and made him fall in love with Cuban music. Years later when talking to Juan de Marcos about the prospect of producing an album that represents real Cuban roots, he heard about Arsenio’s original piano player Rubén González being still alive and playing in Cuba. The dream was born.
Up to the 40s, congas were forbidden in Cuba because of associations with African slaves, and how uncomfortable it all made the white Cuban upper echelon. The first musician to reintroduce congas into his music was Arsenio Rodríguez. He was responsible for setting the foundation for what we know as salsa and mambo. These movements inspired the Cuban music that was being played at the social clubs all over Havana, and was certainly the inspiration for the musicians that recoded Buena Vista Social Club album.
Rubén González originally played piano for Arsenio Rodríguez, earning the nickname El Bonito from the blind legend. Guajiro Mirabal was the most important trumpet player in Cuba for over 40 years. Eliades Ochoa was a central figure in country music based in Santiago de Cuba. Pío Leyva was one of the greatest soneros of salsa music. One of the influential bass players in Cuba at the time was Cachaíto López.
Barbarito Torres was a dream laúd player and the godson of Luciano Monet, probably the best laúd player in Cuba. Compay Segundo was a master of son music. Inspired by African roots in Cuba, son was played in most popular spots in Santiago de Cuba where Compay learned to play the guitar and sing.
Looking to add a softer voice to their ensemble, Ibrahim Ferrer was introduced to the group on the suggestion of Barbarito. The story is that when Omara Portuondo heard Ibrahim’s singing from downstairs, it brought tears to her eyes. Omara was one of the supreme singers in Cuba herself, and became an integral part of Buena Vista Social Club album.
They got together to record in a leaky Havana studio, and halfway through Nick Gold, Ry Cooder and Juan de Marcos decided on the title of the album based on a song from the session titled Social Club Buena Vista. Social clubs where historically great gathering places and events in Cuban life, however they were not immune to the racism that existed in Cuba.
White Cubans who were descendants of colonial Spanish, and consequently richer, had their own social clubs. Black Cubans who were predominantly descendants of the slaves, had their own social club. This was the case in the 30s right up to the 50s, where you could witness the emergence of a more popular Cuban music scene. Buena Vista Social Club was an actual social club for black Cubans.
By the time the Cuban revolution was taking shape there was a palpable divide between the classes, and the majority were poor. Fidel Castro tried to eliminate racism in Cuba with a stroke of a pen banning all the social clubs, but unfortunately those deep divisions are hard to do away. That history is precisely what those musicians were singing about. It is unmistakably present in all their lyrics and sounds.
Buena Vista Social Club is more than just an album and an ensemble of musicians: it is a historical account of Cuba, and indeed of the Americas. Their fame and life dedicated to music deserves all the praise they get, and this tribute at the NAC will certainly go a long way in keeping their stories alive.
Tribute to the Buena Vista Social Club is at the National Arts Centre (1 Elgin St) on Saturday October 12 at 6pm and 8:30pm. Tickets are $35 online.