Cuba Si!


This photo’s is static; it doesn’t begin to capture the dynamism of last Friday evening with the Buena Vista Social Club Orchestra. Capturing the moment is particularly poignant when it comes to the BVSC, because its members are almost all in their 70’s and 80’s. With a few exceptions they are the remaining members of a group of Cuban musicians brought together in 1997 by Ry Cooder, “the American Eric Clapton.” Cooder went to Havana in search of these legendary players and their music and came away with a Grammy award-winning album and an Oscar-nominated documentary.

The Buena Vista Social Club was originally a members’ club in Havana where musicians met to talk and play. It closed in the 1940’s but when Cooder went there in 1997 he was looking for the authentic local music of the earlier period and found it by combing the neighborhoods and asking older Cubans about the place and the players. He found the musicians, many of whom had not performed in years, and brought them together to make the 1997 album. It was a surprise hit, and a year later he arranged to have them perform in concert in Amsterdam and eventually at Carnegie Hall in New York. Wim Wenders, the great German director, loved the album and asked to film the two concerts.


These five musicians are part of the original group. Omara Portuondo, the woman in the center, is 84 now. She is the daughter of an aristocratic family whose mother was disowned when she married a baseball player. Omara has slowed a bit since 1997, but last Friday her voice was still shaking the rafters and her dancing brought the crowd to its feet.

BVSC is now a brand, in the best way, but it is ephemeral. The orchestra still tours a little and is pleased to share the music of its country. The dude with the trombone is the orchestra’s leader and the groups’ sound comes off as a mix of Afro-Caribbean brass, strings, and percussion – New Orleans with an Afro-Latin twist. It’s truly an odd mix of instruments, from the laud (the 12 stringed instrument on the left above), to congas, bongos, and timbale, a small snare drum kit, plus piano, to the brassy sound of the horns. The combination makes a lot of music and the beat is infectious.

Some of the BVSC’s most Iconic original performers have passed away – most notably Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo – but they are very much present on the Wim Wenders film/DVD.

Here they are: Ferrer, the lead singer and Segundo, the cigar smoking guitar player. Are these great faces?  BVSC Ferrer

BVSC Compay Segundo

The Buena Vista Social Club documentary is an historical record of a period, a place, and a bunch of talented, overlooked, and underappreciated musicians. For 60 years Americans were restricted from visiting Cuba. That didn’t prevent us from visiting; it’s just that we had to start from Mexico, Canada or somewhere to create the fiction that we weren’t breaking the law. With diplomatic relations restored  it’s again possible to visit – but without Ry Cooder we would completely have missed these incredible musicians.

Don’t miss them now. If you haven’t seen the documentary, get it and let it transport you to old Havana. You won’t be able to sit still when you hear the music and a smile will never leave your face as you see them wander the streets and visit the observation deck at the Empire State Building on their New York trip to perform at Carnegie Hall.





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