Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Archive: Buena Vista Social Club

Interviews and reviews from the archive with the Cuban maestros as their Adios farewell tour reaches Dublin

Mon, Jul 28, 2014, 14:08


On Saturday night next (August 2), Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club play Dublin’s National Concert Hall as part of their “Adios” farewell world tour which runs through to 2015. Since Wim Wenders’ movie about Havana’s fabled Buena Vista Social Club was released in 1997 (as well as the World Circuit album produced by Ry Cooder and Juan de Marcos González), the Cuban maestros, musicians and singers featured in both have toured the world many times over and became huge international stars in the autumn and winter of their lives.

While many of the greats who once shone in the ranks such as the piano-playing genius Rubén González, Compay Segundo, Anga Diaz, Orlando “Cachaito” López (whose “Cachaito” solo album is well worth checking out), Manuel Galbán and the mighty Ibrahim Ferrer are sadly no longer with us, the line-up for this farewell tour does include vocalists Eliades Ochoa and Omara Portuondo, trumpeter Guajiro Mirabal, laud virtuoso Barbarito Torres. and long-time band leader Jesus Aguaje Ramos.

Here are two Buena Vista pieces from the archives. The first is a 2001 feature on the band, including a review of a show in Hong Kong, an interview with Omara Portuondo and Ibrahím Ferrer and some thoughts on the phenomenon from World Circuit boss Nick Gold. The second, meanwhile, is an interview with Ferrer in Chicago in 2003 when he was touring his solo album ”Buenos Hermanos”.

Buena Vista Social Club 2001

No-one saw this coming. On its release back in 1997, “The Buena Vista Social Club” looked set to be one of many excellent albums released every year, loved by those lucky enough to hear it but ignored by the world at large. After all, the market for an album of traditional Cuban music of a style long out of fashion played by musicians long out of the game had somewhat limited appeal. It would probably sell to world music fans, dreamers enraptured by the idea of Cuba and a few trainspotters who saw Ry Cooder’s name on the sleeve. Sure, who buys albums made by 70 or 80 year olds anyway?

February 2001 and The Buena Vista Social Club campers have reached Hong Kong on the tour which no-one wants to see ending. In a scene repeated around the globe, all three shows sold out within days of annoucement. The entrance is peopled by amateur touts desperately trying to buy tickets with little luck. You really can’t fault their efforts because tonight is a little piece of musical nirvana.

Live, just as both blockbuster album and Wim Wenders’ documentary demonstrated, the Buena Vista magic takes your breath away. While many are here simply to see the feature stars of the show, this night is not merely about Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo and Ruben Gonzalez. There are 18 musicians onstage this evening and none of them are here to make up the numbers. Each applies an individual touch to the collective swing, sway and style, turning the two and half hours into one of the musical wonders of the world. The focus may begin on the vocalists and legendary pianist but it soon magnifies to take in the whole stage. Really, you can’t leave anything out: the wonderful bass-playing at the heart of the ensemble courtesy of Cachaito Lopez, the manner in which Guajiro Mirabel’s trumpet sends each number soaring higher and higher, the brass section finetuning the momentum and the atmosphere at every turn, the masterly musical direction throughout.

And then, of course, there are the three stars, each shining for different reasons. Omara Portuondo supplies the diva touch, disco-dancing her way across the stage like a hyperactive cheerleader. Ibrahim Ferrer is the man with the velvet tones, each son ballad becoming a dramatic, epic paean of love and loss in his hands. Ruben Gonzalez is simply the legend, his every spot at the piano another excuse for the giddy audience to sigh and daydream. Tonight, a night in Hong Kong becomes a night in Havana and we’re all strolling down Avenue de Santa Catalina in the moonlight.

The following morning, Portuondo and Ferrer face the questions they have faced again and again. We may know the who and the what of this success story but no-one really knows the why. Not even, it seems, the musicians. “We feel happy, and grateful that the work we are doing is acknowledged”, Ferrer explains. “I don’t know why exactly it is happening but we see every night that the people enjoy the music. Maybe they feel happy to share with us the music, the performance, the shows. It is a good record, and the movie has also had a good impact all over the world, whatever language they speak. And are bringing our country’s culture to other places and different countries. Musicianship is our trade and we love what we do.”

For Portuondo, the success is just as much about the reaction at home as abroad. “I think the Cuban people are very pleased with our success, they are happy that we are so famous now worldwide and they feel we may have put Cuban music of this sort on the map. It is strange because the melodies and songs of that era, the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, have reappeared everywhere. In Cuba, they are re-releasing old recordings, licensing them, not only songs we have done but also others of a similar style. And they are selling well. There are also many groups now that play Cuban music of that era and they are touring and doing a lot of work. It’s coming back, the music of the Forties and Fifties. And this, I think, is a good thing.”

Back in London, Nick Gold echoes these observations. The record’s executive producer and the man whose World Circuit label struck gold with the project has seen and heard the upsurge in Cuban music of a similar ilk. “You go there now and every band in every hotel is playing repetoire from the record. You overhear tourists saying ‘lets go find The Buena Vista Social Club’. You also hear a lot more music – there are two more studios there and more live shows. Musicians are looking back at this style of music and more modern bands seeing the continuity rather than rejecting it out of hand. The quality of musicianship on the island is extraordinary – you could be doing a recording session and suddenly you need a trombone player and there’s one around to the studio who is as good if not better than the one you had. There’s no ego involved, they all play their bit.”

Certainly, ego had little to do with the recording sessions which produced the album. While the musicians may have heard of each other prior to the project, it was for many their first time to play together. “What I remember is that the recording sessions were very pleasant” says Ferrer. “I thought, to be working on songs from the Forties and Fifties, was very rewarding, because we have always had that kind of music in our repertoire. It was very good feeling to find ourselves together in a recording studio, not knowing it would become such a successful record. It was a lovely gathering for all of us, musicians, interpreters. It was like finding old friends.”

There was little inkling then of what was to come. Gold recalls not having any massive expectations for the record: “I mean, when we listened to the music at the time, we knew something extraordinary was happening but we had no idea that this phenomenon would come of it.”

Documentary director Wim Wenders recalled in an 1999 interview that even winning a Grammy in 1998 did not have an effect. “It just didn’t mean much for the musicians themselves, they didn’t really understand what was happening. They realised the music was popular, but it hadn’t started to change their life in any way so we were privileged to make this film with them at a time when their lives weren’t upside down, because of the music’s success. It wasn’t until they stood on the stage in Amsterdam or later in Carnegie Hall that they realised the dream of their lifetime had come true, so to speak.”

There’s little doubt that the musicians thrive on the opportunity they have been given. Ferrer explains that many of the musicians weren’t working as much prior to the album: “now, of course, the touring doesn’t stop (laughs)”. It’s not a complaint because here is one group who have no intention of stopping. “We do not get travel-sick” adds Portuondo “so we are going to keep going round and round as long as we can. Life has given us this chance to do these wonderful things so we are going to keep them alive as long as we can. We still have energy and the wish to do it, and we are happy with it.”

The success has also provided an opportunity to make solo records. In fact, there has been a veritable avalanche of releases with solo albums from all three touring stars as well as Compay Segundo and Eliades Ochoa plus forthcoming albums from Cachaito Lopez, Jesus ‘Aguaje’ Ramos and Guajiro Mirabel. Many, though, still pine for a second collective release but Gold doesn’t see this happening for a number of reasons.

“When we recorded, obviously all the musicians were available but since the success, a lot of them are doing their own projects. Compay was already signed to Warners, Eliades is signed to Virgin and we (World Circuit) have signed various other artists so there’s a question of logistics. I wonder, though, if it would be a good idea to bring them back together. It was a unique one-off, there was a chemistry there which would be difficult to recreate.”

You can see this chemistry in the live shows and even in the way in which Ferrer and Portuondo can finish each other’s sentences. Perhaps the trick is not to look for the reason behind this project or to hope for a repeat but simply to enjoy it for what it is. A unique story featuring unique individuals and some truly unique music. After all, it seems to be what the musicians themselves are doing….

“You know that this is not only a matter of musicians and interpreters, it is a united effort” says Portuondo thoughtfully, staring you in the eye. “It is where different elements mix, like the talent of the producers, of the recording engineers, of the musicians, of the people that mix the record, of those who distribute it to the world. It is the work of many people. It’s about people and it’s about music. And that is the winning mix.”

Ibrahim Ferrer 2003

For Ibrahim Ferrer, these are the good times. On a chilly Chicago afternoon with the wind whipping in from Lake Michigan to send temperatures plummeting, the sprightly Cuban senior and one of the most unlikeliest best-selling recording artists imaginable cannot think of a single thing he would change. OK, the weather is a bummer for someone more acclimatised to climates at the other end of the scale and it’s very hard to get decent coffee in Chi-Town but Ferrer isn’t complaining.

“If it wasn’t for this”, he says pointing towards the stereo at the other end of his hotel room, “I would be back in Havana shining shoes and selling peanuts.”

What’s on the stereo is “Buenos Hermanos”, the latest chapter in the transformation of Ibrahim Ferrer from street hawker to international superstar. The singer who finally earned long overdue respect and acclaim with the Buena Vista Social Club is back with a new solo record and audiences should prepare to be smitten all over again by one of the most seductive, elegant and subtle singers in the game.

“Buenos Hermanos” is where Ferrer and all-star band (including Manuel Galbán, Orlando ‘Cachaíto’ Lopéz and Miguel Angá Díaz, and with Ry Cooder producing) cut loose from the well-trodden Buena Vista template and emerge with a new slant on Cuban traditions. Highly charged and carrying a robust punch, this could well be Ferrer’s finest hour.

“I have learnt so much from the last couple of years and I think that has really helped me on this album” Ferrer says. “The last five years have been unbelievable but this is the first time I’ve had a group of my own and that means a lot to me. Don’t forget that I was born in 1927 and most people have only began to hear about me in the last five years. For most of my life, I was an unknown, I was forgotten. Yet look at where I am today, look at this hotel room, I could never have imagined this happening. All those years when other musicians said my voice wasn’t good enough, I never thought this was going to happen.”

Two themes emerge when you talk to Ferrer. One is his humility – here is someone who is genuinely modest about his considerable talents. Ry Cooder recalled that one day during recording sessions for this album, Ferrer had a sore throat and suggested someone else could do the vocals. The other theme is vindication. For a very long time, Ferrer just didn’t get the chance to sing the songs he wanted to sing.

“People used to always say that my voice wasn’t worth much, that it wasn’t the voice of a principal singer” he recalls, with a hurt tone. “When I used to go looking for work, people kept saying that I was more of a backing singer. At the time the radio in Cuba was full of really strong voices and I didn’t seem to fit in. I was allowed to sing guarachos and sones but I never got to sing boleros because I was told I was not good enough for them.”

So, from the mid-1950s until his retirement in 1991, Ferrer sung what he was allowed to sing. Spells with acts such as Los Jóvenes del Son, Orquesta Chepín-Chóven, Orquesta Ritmo Oriental and Los Bocucos produced world tours, recording sessions and constant work, but little individual acclaim for Ferrer – or indeed an opportunity for him to show what he could really do on the business side of a microphone.

Life for Ferrer and a lot of other Cuban musicians changed in 1996. Work was in progress at Havana’s Egrem Studios on the Buena Vista sessions when the call went out for a voice who could handle a bolero. “I had no idea what was going on with the Buena Vista Social Club”, he remembers. “They needed a singer and Juan de Marcos González suggested me. They offered me $50 for the recording session. I had never received more than seven pesos before for a recording so they got me. I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t say no to that.

“I went to the studio and my old friend Compay Segundo was there and so was Eliades Ochoa and all these other great musicians like Rubén González and Barbarito Torres. When I walked into the studio, Eliades started playing “Ay Candela” and I started singing along. That was all it took. They asked me to record it with them and that’s where it started. One of the songs we recorded, “Dos gardenias”, is a bolero and that was the type of song people kept saying my voice wasn’t suitable for so it was incredible for me to end up singing that song on the album. I was finally a bolero singer.”

The release of that album and subsequent world tours has meant a huge boom for Cuban musicians. “It’s amazing to be a musician in Cuba now” chuckles Ferrer. “There are groups who get together today and tomorrow, they’re off travelling and touring. Even the cobblers and shop-keepers on my street are putting together groups and touring Europe (laughs)”

It has also ensured more positive publicity than all the money or cigars in the world could ever buy for the Caribbean island. Ferrer mentions the amount of tourists who now come to the country as a result of the Buena Vista phenomenon to visit the source of the sound. “Oh, there is no doubt what our music has done for Cuba and of course, people like Fidel Castro recognise this. I wish I lived in a world where there were no embargos or need for visas to visit another country because we can learn from each other but currently, it’s very hard to do that. We’re not counter-revolutionaries, we’re singers, musicians and dancers, we just want people to have a good time.”

Ferrer’s ascendance has meant he has become a much prized special guest on other artists’ albums. You’ll find him singing with Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz (“I didn’t have a clue who Damon was but I said ‘sure, I’ll do it, I’ve no problems with that’. He was a really nice guy”) and on “Specialist In All Styles”, the comeback album from Senegalese stars Orchestra Baobab. “I knew a little about them but not a lot. When I was recording with them, I couldn’t believe how familiar they sounded, how Cuban they sounded. It felt amazing, there was a real connection in the room, I felt like I had been playing with them for years.”

Later, as he and his band turn on the style at a sold-out Chicago Theater, you have to applaud the seventysomething in the Kangol beret centrestage. This 18-piece all-star band may be firing on all cylinders but this is Ferrer’s show and he dominates it with grace and ease. Crooning and dancing away, this really is one time when fortune has favoured the right person.

“My music is moving forward and I’m very happy with this” says Ferrer. “I’ve reached a place where I know that those people who criticised me in the past were wrong. How successful I am is a big clunk on the head for them. I haven’t changed, I’m still the same person I was before all this happened. I was born to do this so what can I do?”