By j. poetIOctober 5, 2021
When World Circuit Records came out Buena Vista Social Club’s eponymous album in 1997, there were no great expectations. It seemed unlikely that a collection of Cuban hits from the 1940s, performed by a jazz group of young people accompanying an assembly of seasoned musicians – many of whom are over 60 – would be a success. Unexpectedly, the record sold over 12 million copies and won a Grammy for Best Traditional Latin Album. It is still the best-selling Cuban music album ever released in the United States.
This year, World Circuit celebrates the 25th anniversary of Buena Vista Social Club with a double album of 32 tracks. It includes the original disc, alternate versions and a few songs that were never released.
Two members of the ensemble, Eliades Ochoa and Omara Portuondo, spoke with DownBeat about the origin of the album and its impact on their lives.
“I was playing at the Queen Elizabeth Center in London when Nick Gold [World Circuit founder] asked if he could talk to me, ”Ochoa said. “He was interested in making an album with musicians from Mali sitting with Cuban musicians. I said yes.’ When the African musicians didn’t show up, they invited veteran players to come to the studio.
With Ochoa’s help, Gold, producer Ry Cooder, and project director Juan de Marcos González formed a group that became the Buena Vista Social Club. “Nick and Juan found the songs and we invited musicians,” Ochoa said. “A lot of us haven’t seen each other for a while. We started having conversations and singing songs, some of which were old songs that we had played many times before. I had a feeling that something good would come out of the recording. With the power of musicians, their history and the music, something magical happened in the studio. I knew the music was good and the recorded sound was good, but what happened was a surprise. It changed my life and that of all the musicians in the project. When they went to bed, no one knew who they were. They woke up and everyone knew them. Every time we’ve appeared at shows we’ve had a standing ovation, before we even played. “
Ochoa said he is still in contact with the musicians on the album. “Many of us are not alive, but after Buena Vista Social Club, we felt like one big family.
While Gold, Cooder and González were finalizing the composition of the session, they went in search of a singer and chose Portuondo.
“I was recording in the same studio,” Portuondo said. “They called me to sing a song. It was a surprise when I walked into the room and saw them all, especially Ibrahim [Ferrer]. I hadn’t seen him for a long time. I proposed ‘Veinte Años’ with Compay [Segundo], who sang harmony voices. We recorded it without rehearsal. It was very natural.
“Many of us knew each other from before and there was a lot of admiration and affection for the young musicians who accompanied us. We really had no idea what was going to happen with this project, or the huge global impact it was going to have – and still has today – 25 years after the original recording. The songs have been performed all over the world. We were able to visit many countries, meet many people and participate in beautiful projects, both in groups and individually.
“This edition includes an incredible package, with photos that brought me so many memories, emotions and some tears, seeing photos of my dear Rubén Gonzalez, Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Puntillita, Pio Leyva, my dear Guajiro Mirabal, Cachao, Roberto García and many others. It is indeed a very moving and beautiful edition. It gave me a lot of energy and made me want to go back on tour with the remaining members to celebrate this 25th anniversary. Comics
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