Twenty-five years ago, a group of veteran Cuban musicians convened at Egrem Studios in Havana for what was supposed to be a joint recording of African and Cuban artists for Nick Gold’s small indie label, World Circuit.
Gold, a curator of culturally surprising recordings that mined authentic sounds, had plans to record two albums. One would feature Cuban bandleader and tres guitar virtuoso Juan de Marcos González (director of Sierra Maestra) leading a band in a tribute to the big Havana bands of the 1940s and 50s. The other, to be produced by acclaimed guitarist Ry Cooder, would unite West African musicians from Mali with Cuban musicians from the city of Santiago de Cuba, known for its small-ensemble guitar music, among other styles.
But at the last minute, the Mali musicians were unable to make the trip. Already in Cuba — which at the time was in the woeful economic throes of the 1991 post-Soviet collapse and under a U.S. embargo — Gold and Cooder improvised.
With the help of González, they gathered a group of old-timers: Some of them, like guitarist Eliades Ochoa (the baby of the group at 50 at the time), Juan de Marco González and singer Omara Portuondo, were active performers; others, like pianist Ruben Gonzalez and Compay Segundo, had largely fallen off the radar. Key among them was Segundo — 89 years old at the time, and a prolific composer and singer who had been a legend of Cuban music — who Cooder and Gold were hellbent on including.
The musicians gathered, pulled by the presence of Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer, arriving at the recording studio most of them hadn’t set foot in for decades. They called themselves the Buena Vista Social Club, in honor of a social club shuttered by the Cuban government in the 1960s. And then, they played, and played, and played, recording more than 30 tracks, old and new.
Released in 1997, Buena Vista Social Club became one of the most unlikely crossover successes of the late 20th century: an album made by unknown senior Cuban musicians who played traditional music that somehow resonated internationally with Spanish and non-Spanish speakers alike. World Circuit reported in 2014 that the album had sold over 12 million copies globally — and in the U.S., it topped the Billboard World Albums and Latin Albums charts, remaining on the latter for 107 weeks. It also drew acclaim from mainstream stateside publications like SPIN, who listed it among their top 90 albums of the 90s, and Rolling Stone, who named it one of the 500 greatest albums of all time. The Buena Vista phenomena continued with a concert in Carnegie Hall — a feat during the embargo — and a 1999 Wim Wenders film, which was nominated for best documentary feature at the 2000 Academy Awards.
Last month, in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the album’s recording, World Circuit/BMG released a collection of 25th Anniversary Editions that includes the original album as well as previously unreleased tracks from the original 1996 tapes, among them alternate takes of some of the songs originally in the album. A quarter-century later, Gold, Cooder and Eliades Ochoa take us back to the original recording sessions in this brief oral history. (Conversations have been abbreviated and edited for clarity.)
Nick Gold: I had come to experience a lot of artists from Mali and Senegal playing Cuban repertoire, especially a band called Orquesta Baobab from Senegal. That led me to think it might be a comfortable fit to have Mali musicians go to Cuba and work with music from Santiago. I had never recorded in Cuba before.
Eliades Ochoa: I met Nick for the first time when I went to play two shows in London. He saw me, and told Juan de Marcos González that he wanted to speak to me after the concert. He congratulated me on the way I played the guitar, and right there, he proposed a project in Havana, recording with African musicians. I said yes. Nick Gold was very serious. He was very enthusiastic about this project, and he played the trumpet. His words carried strength and sincerity. He knew what he wanted, and I felt we would be in good hands.
Ry Cooder: Nick and I were friends and had worked together with Ali Farka Touré before that. He called me on the phone — this would have been in 94 or 95 — and said he felt the rhythms and melodies of the Cuban song form had travelled to West Africa, and some guitar players in Africa could play the songs. He was going to put them together with these trova players from Oriente, beginning with Eliades Ochoa who he had spoken with. He asked if I would come down to Havana and help him produce.
It was different for me with the Africans, because they play in three-four time while we, the West, play 1, 2, 3, 4. But Cubans play clave time so it’s very different; everything is in the upbeat, its lighter. It made me wonder what was going to happen. Are the Africans going to convert to clave? But I said, sure, whatever happens. And my wife, [son and drummer] Joaquim and I got on a plane and we went down.
Gold: We didn’t have any roadblocks in planning our trip, and everything went very smoothly and very easily. Originally we had a straight-ahead guitar album in mind. At the same time, I was talking with Juan de Marcos González of Sierra Maestra and he told me of his big dream of paying homage to the Havana big band sound. We fell in synch with our love for Arsenio Rodriguez. We went to make two records, but in the end the Africans didn’t make it. They said it was a lost passport, although the account is disputed. I let Ry know, and he said let’s just try to do something anyway.
Cooder: To get in [to Cuba], those days you had to come in from Mexico. We arrived at around 10:00 p.m. and there wasn’t much light. Nick was waiting for us with a driver, and said, “Well, the Africans didn’t make it.” And secretly I thought, “Well, that’s’ a relief [given the musical rhythmic complexities].” Nick had already been working in the studio with some of these players —not the trova guys, but a bunch of cats, like [pianist] Ruben González.
Ochoa: When they told me the African musicians didn’t arrive, I figured we were going to make an album, with the same musical quality and the same respect as we normally do. Nick and Ry spoke with Juan de Marco and told him they were going to make an album just with Cuban musicians, and they started to look for them; musicians who hadn’t worked in a long time but carried a beautiful musical tradition, like Cachaito, Ruben Gonzalez, even Ibrahim, who hadn’t been in the music scene for years. Compay either, although he’d played with me. Ruben hadn’t played piano in ages. I had my quartet, Cuarteto Patria, since 1978, and was always working. But they weren’t. They had kind of drifted away from art.
Gold: Egrem recording studio was way beyond my dreams. It’s a magical place. You walk off the street straight through these doors, through these winding stairs, and you walk into this studio which is a real crucible of Cuban music. It was just a beautiful looking room: large, wooden floors, wooden ceiling, with these funny looking wooden chairs. The actual room was very large, and the control room had a British console. On the first day of recording, the equipment went down and it was taken apart by the engineers and I was almost in tears.
Cooder: We kept having to move the grand piano away from the leaks in the roof. The other thing was, the electricity was bad. So in the recording booth we had a big 24 track console that must have been put in the ’80s and all this gear. That draws a lot of power. Normally, you’d have a studio wired with a bunch of electricity to run this stuff, but they didn’t. The tape machine kept changing speed. The board operator figured out that the entire booth was going through one socket in the wall, the kind of thing you would plug your toaster in. The maintenance guy said no one ever complained about this before.
So he sent word to a friend who bought an extension cord he’d made from a lamp socket. And he said, “Would this help?” But somehow they managed to spread the electricity around. At that time the group had kind of settled around the piano, and the room begins to talk to you. You don’t want to use closed miking as you do in rock n’ roll which is another concept. A group is a group and you need to hear the group. So we had to back off the mike, as if it were classical music. About three days in, that’s when Compay showed up, and that’s when we began to get in gear. You needed that mind and that voice and that feeling. Plus, he’d written all these songs and he was alive. It was a miracle.
Ochoa: I hadn’t seen Ibrahim Ferrer or Cachaito in years, and they hadn’t seen each other. And that joy of finding ourselves in the studio took over, even though we didn’t even know what the album was going to be yet. I would call out a song, Ibrahim did the chorus, Compay sang, Ry and Nick would listen and choose. We recorded 20-30 songs. Ruben Gonzalez started to play a danzón at the piano and Roberto and I accompanied him and Nick came out and said the danzón had to be in the album. The title of the danzón was, “Buena Vista Social Club.” It was the name of this club they had in the ’40s and ’50s, where Pío Leyva, Ibrahim and others went to play dominos, smoke cigars, have a drink.
Compay, in fact, worked in a tobacco factory and retired as a cigar roller; he didn’t retire as an artist. We’d be recording a song, and he would say, “I need to grab a smoke” and step outside and smoke his tobacco. Of course, no one said anything. Can you imagine telling Compay not to smoke?
Gold: I don’t think any of us could have imagine the phenomenon it would become. But we realized pretty early on something extraordinary was happening in the studio. How they were playing together in the room was just beautiful. It was a small ensemble and they just made this beautiful sound — and sitting in the room with them was gorgeous.
Cooder: The term “jam session” implies a social event. I don’t believe in that. Every time you go to record, I don’t care where you are in this world, to me, you take a blood oath. Here, the songs were known. We had great players. Fantastic players. But we don’t know exactly how it will work because you never know until you start. Cubans, their music is based on the ensemble concept, so we recorded them together. It’s an ensemble form, whether it’s son or trova or cha cha. Egrem was built for groups. It’s a good size room, very long and very high. It’s about placing the microphones and getting the right sound, which took several days.
Gold: It really clicked when we went back in the control room, and it sounded exactly the same. It sounded like you were with the musicians. “Chan Chan” was the first song we recorded. We did it in one take and everyone realized: This is important work. It was a difficult time. It was after the Soviet collapse and it was not easy. So within that, this magic was happening and people worked very, very hard. I was there just over two weeks.
Ochoa: I knew we were doing something very important because I could see what Nick Gold and Ry Cooder were doing, how they were selecting the music, and it wasn’t done lightly. It was an album that was going to be important and we were so happy to do an album with a Brit and an American.
Cooder: People want to know all the time what the “magic moment” was and, I’ll tell you the truth: Nick flew back to London, and me and the family flew back to L.A. and Nick called me and said, “What do you think? Is it good?” And I said, “I think it’s really, really good. The music is beautiful, it’s very alluring. But I don’t know if the public is going to think that.” Nick said, “Lets put it out.”
I’ve always felt that if music is really, really good — not just OK, but really really beautiful, really fascinating — then records have a mystique, and people can react to it with surprise and sudden discovery. And that’s exactly what happened.
Nick Gold: At the time, World Circuit was three of us, and up until then we had been releasing on this very carefully thought-out network of independent distributors. We essentially tried to continue doing that, but in America we went to Nonesuch. I met with them just as I was going to record with Buena Vista, and they were interested not in the thing that became this phenomenon but in the smaller audience of the African project. But we knew we had something special that we wanted to present as best as we could.
So we put together this great package. Initially it was a word-of-mouth reception. And then the musicians started to come over [to Europe and the U.S.]. And everybody got behind it; our network of independents and Nonesuch. It just grew quite organically. We used to release earlier in Europe because the touring could happen first in Europe.
Then came the film and it took on a different aspect. Because of the intimate interviews, people started to think they knew the musicians. At that time, there was this whole “World Music” genre — but I’ve always felt slightly strange about it. That would have been very different in America to Europe. We kept pushing it for what it was, which was Cuban music.
Cooder: If you’re talking about the mass of people who are not Latin music fans—why would they hear it? But after it was released, me and my wife were in an upscale Italian restaurant in Santa Barbara, and through the kitchen door, we could hear them listening to the record in the kitchen — and at the same time, the guy upfront played it in the main room. You had the staff and you had the ritzy diners listening to the same music. And I said, “Susi we have a hit right here.” That’s very rare, to have both ends of the spectrum.
Ochoa: We all played a first concert in Holland, and then we went to New York and played in Carnegie Hall. That concert, in this theater steeped in history, there was a moment I can’t forget: Someone in the audience took a Cuban flag and unfurled it in the middle of the theater. And seeing all these Cubans who had lived in the U.S. for so long but hadn’t gone back to Cuba, hadn’t seen their families, to see all those men crying, crying of happiness, taking pictures with us — that’s something you don’t forget. We never spoke about politics, in any interview. It was a group of older people who had dedicated their lives to music.