No one ever expected a tidal wave of mainstream interest in a musical idiom that doesn’t get much airplay on Spanish- or English-language radio. But that was before the 1997 Ry Cooder-produced album Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit/Nonesuch) rode Billboard magazine’s Latin chart for two years, then broke through to the pop chart after the release of Win Wenders’ documentary film of the same name.
BVSC’s stratospheric journey had a serendipitous beginning. In 1996, the American guitarist Cooder and his son Joaquim landed in Cuba at the urging of World Circuit producer Nick Gold. The original idea was to team up with musicians from Mali and Cuba to explore the Afro-Cuban connection. When the Malians didn’t show up, Cuban producer Juan de Marcos González convinced Cooder to bring together veteran musicians in a classic retrospective.
González, a member of the son revival group Sierra Maestra, knew where to find the players. With the exception of singer Ibrahim Ferrer and pianist Rubén González, both in their 70s, all of them were enjoying productive careers, albeit in a marginal niche. The aura of discovery gave the project the cachet of a media scoop, although the notion that the music had been completely neglected in Cuba is a bit of romantic exaggeration that was propagated by U.S. media coverage.
“Everywhere you go in Santiago de Cuba, you hear little trios or groups playing son,” said Mari Marques, a Cuban-born U.S. citizen who leads cultural tours to Cuba. “The fact is the Cuban government really has done a lot to support traditional music and dance. Young artists may not choose to play the son, but they all know that timba [new-wave Cuban salsa] is rooted in those traditions, and they learned that in the state-run schools.”
“I think Cuban kids are a lot more aware of their folkloric roots than U.S. kids are aware of theirs,” said Jimmy Maslon, whose Ahí-Namá label records both timba bands and acoustic, folk-influenced groups. “Of course, you’re going to hear more pop music on the radio, because that’s how it is everywhere. And it’s true that people still aren’t that aware of the Buena Vista Social Club in Cuba, but that’s because it was an American production.”
Many of the Buena Vista musicians had strong individual careers to begin with, and have since signed contracts with non-Cuban labels. Guitarist Elaides Ochoa and laúd player Barbarito Torres promoted their solo albums; Compay Segundo performed with his sons as Compay y los Amigos before his 2003 death, and Ferrer and González’s tours with musicians from the BVSC sessions sold out in 2000.