Day Three of our much-belated Cuban honeymoon and we’re back at the beach, earlier this time for a choice spot in which to enjoy the atmosphere. Up to now we’ve typically been sleeping in late and, therefore getting here too late to secure a front row seat but the early morning fart I let loose with this morning in the room (which, I proudly note, smelled exactly like the “buttered lobster tail” we had for “dinner” last night) sure helped inspire an early start (ie. getting out of the room…fast!). We bobbed in the surf together for a little bit before I completed another 1500m beach swim, and we are laying down now to enjoy the rest of the day, me with the ‘At Carnegie Hall‘ album by the Buena Vista Social Club…especially since we are seeing them perform tonight*.
The Buena Vista Social Club was originally a members’ only club in Havana, Cuba, that closed in the 1940’s. There it held dances and musical activities, becoming a popular location for musicians to meet and play during the 1920’s through the 40’s. In the 1990’s, nearly 50 years after the club was closed, it inspired a recording made by Cuban musician Juan de Marcos González and American guitarist Ry Cooder with traditional Cuban musicians, some of whom were veterans who had performed at the club during the height of its popularity.
In 1998, a recording, named ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ after the same Havana institution, became an international success, and the gathered ensemble was encouraged to perform with a full line-up in Amsterdam in April 1998 (two nights). German director Wim Wenders captured the performance on film and the one that followed on July 1st, 1998 at Carnegie Hall, New York City for a documentary – also called ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ – that included interviews with the musicians conducted in Havana. Wenders’ film was released on June 4th, 1999 to critical acclaim, receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary feature and winning numerous accolades including Best Documentary at the European Film Awards. These performances were hugely successful and only further expanded the reach of Cuban music internationally.
This is a live double album by Buena Vista Social Club and producer Ry Cooder, performed at the very same Carnegie Hall in 1998, but released over ten years later on October 13th, 2008. The performance featured veteran Cuban performers like Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez, Compay Segundo, and Omara Portuondo. Of the four older legends, those who had made music together in Cuba before Castro, only Omara remains on the Earth, and she is still quite active. The other three, vocalist Ibrahim, pianist Rubem, and guitarist and vocalist Compay (he lived to be 96!), have passed away. The youngster of the group, guitarist Eliades Ochoa, continues to record and tour.
The performance is profound, sensual, and beautiful. It is true that eight of the songs that appeared on the eponymous studio album are replicated here as well, but these live versions blow them away. In addition, the 16 songs here, offer extended instrumental workouts to go along with the glorious vocals, making each tune – from the opening ‘Chan Chan‘ all the way through to the glorious bolero ‘Silencio‘ duet between Ferrer and Portuondo – reflect all of the lived history not only of the singers, but of the entire era for an audience to behold. Segundo’s rich and lived-in baritone inhabits disc two’s opener, ‘Orgullecida‘, so fully that no one should ever be allowed to cover it again.
As is the standard for Nonesuch, the sound of the evening is fantastic, the spark in the mix has been left in, and the backing band sounds as varied and tight as it did in the film. This set is every bit as necessary as the solo albums by the singers, and perhaps even more than the studio effort. It is not only a historical document; it is a living, breathing piece of work that guarantees the transference of emotion from tape to listener, and cements the Buena Vista Social Club’s place not only in the Latin music pantheon, but in the larger context of popular music history.
And, please, don’t take my word for it…click HERE.