September 23, 2023
Sep 23, 2023
from the desk of Cassidy Ann, Citizen Vinyl Staff Producer
Timelessness. It’s a rare quality found only in a select number of albums. They seem to be in constant communication with the present, wherever the record spins. Like the instantly recognizable clangs of conga and bass in the opening track, Buena Vista Social Club’s record still resonates deeply with audiences young and old.
“There are certain musics that seem to hold answers to what is the best of the best of humanity,” Catalina Maria Johnson, Chicago-based music journalist and host of Beat Latino, said. “An ability to transform difficult experiences into an art that is able to distill, not just the essence of those particular times, but also reveal the valor and resilience that will allow us to resist, persist, overcome.”
Since its release in 1997, Buena Vista Social Club’s eponymous record has sold more than 8 million copies. Last year, the label World Circuit released a 25th anniversary edition. It includes the original record, alternative versions of some songs, and tracks cut at the legendary session that had previously never been released.
But what is it about the album that still makes it a bestseller?
For some, it’s the ensemble itself. A group of seniors, veritable masters of Cuban music, who gathered together to record their favorite songs. Some of the musicians had to be lured out of retirement. Legendary composer, Compay Segundo, was 89. Ibraham Ferrer, then 69, was shining shoes on the streets of Havana when he was asked to join the week-long recording session.
“These profoundly impactful tunes were performed with intimate ease by musicians who had known them for decades,” Johnson said. “And as we listen, we also totally feel that they were having a wonderful time.”
In other words, a bunch of old timers, showing the world how it’s done.
Then there’s the historical context. For international audiences, particularly in the US, the album arrived like an unexpected postcard from the island nation. And a beautiful, poetic one, at that. It disrupted the woeful image of Cuba portrayed in newsprint at the time. The country was amidst a grim period of economic throes, following the post-Soviet collapse and a U.S. embargo. The collective of 20 artists called themselves the Buena Vista Social Club, after a club shuttered by the Cuban government in the 1960s.
Though many the world over had never heard of these veteran musicians, their songs had instant familiarity. Many of the boleros on the record were already iconic tunes played and sung throughout Latin America. That provided an instant audience, ready to sing along.
But even for listeners unfamiliar with the socio-political context or the classic songbook, the music resonates on an even deeper level, says Diego Chi, bassist for the Latin Grammy-nominated rock group, Making Movies.
“The songs are built on an intoxicating combination of African rhythms and a fiery call and response — musical DNA that traces back to our oldest ancestors,” Chi said. “That’s why there’s something in it that speaks to people, no matter what culture they are from or what language they speak.”
Chi says as Making Movies was getting started, Buena Vista Social Club’s record served as a sort of Rosetta Stone for “unlocking” the rhythms and elements of Latin music. The band still occasionally pulls out “Cuarto de Tula” or “Chan Chan” during their live performances, he adds. The music links generations.
“The first time I performed ‘Cuarto de Tula’ with my mamá in the audience, she asked afterwards how we had heard that song. My late abuelo Dante, her father, had also loved that song,” Chi said.
“Perhaps it is the spirit of my abuelo living in me, pointing me to the best joys he can share, or at the least, it inspires me to believe that the joy music gives us continues giving, long after we are gone.”