The original Buena Vista Social Club album (1997) and subsequent albums featuring its stars were made in an analogue 1940s studio with a leaky roof. That studio had seen few changes since its customized acoustic panels witnessed Nat King Cole singing in Español, Afro-Cuban ritual sessions, and the rum-fueled first recording of a Cuban jazz jam session. UK label World Circuit head Nick Gold and U.S. guitarist/producer Ry Cooder immediately appreciated the magic of the place, which, by 1996, had seen the evolution of Cuban music through the island’s Revolutionary era.
A gathering of veteran artists, some of whom had long considered themselves retired and who were little known outside of Cuba, Buena Vista was not an album made with the goal of selling over twelve million copies, but it did. The record re-opened the door to great Cuban music of the past, and ultimately did a lot to pique global audiences’ interest in newer Cuban sounds. Arriving in Havana as Cuba was opening up to the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Gold and Cooder were in the right place at the right time. Still, in the hands of other producers, Buena Vista would not have been Buena Vista. To put it very simply, Cooder knew to just put the artists in the studio and press play.
“There’s a trance you get into [with traditional Cuban music] and it feels good like drugs or liquor or cigars. It’s hypnotic,” Cooder told me not long after the album’s release, speaking as freely as the music he described. “…The thing about Cubans is that they’re not bound up, they’re really released in a good way,” he said. “These songs are like Persian miniatures in ivory, perfectly detailed stories about feeling good, and being kind of greasy and horny all the time.”
Buena Vista became a phenomenon and a franchise, and its artists became unlikely international stars. The artists, in different configurations, recorded more albums for World Circuit (released on Nonesuch in the States), all notable records which explored Cuban music in more depth and with more daring.
Lost and Found, an album collecting outtakes from Buena Vista sessions and live tracks recorded at concerts outside of Cuba, will be released on Tuesday (March 23). The album coincides with the Buena Vista Social Club’s Adios tour, which arrives in the United States in August after a year of logging international dates.
Tracks on the new album recorded in concert capture how audiences were seduced by the Cuban veterans, who played Carnegie Hall as easily as the front porch in Havana where they once rehearsed. The band kept on filling houses around the world for over 20 years, although the personnel evolved after the deaths of all the charismatic central players — except for 86-year-old torch singer Omara Portuondo, and Eliades Ochoa, the Cuban Johnny Cash, whose mystical interpretation of a cotidian song can be witnessed on the Lost and Found track “Pedacitos de Papel.”
On “Macusa,” Ochoa performs with saucy, cigar- smoking Compay Segundo, the “Chan Chan” singer who emerged as the front man of the band until his death in 2003 at age 95. Compay, the stage name of Francisco Repilado, had a storied career rooted in his native Santiago, the eastern city known as the birth place of the kind of acoustic bliss demonstrated on this track.
The irresistible Ibrahim Ferrer, the group’s unlikely septuagenarian galan, who has also since passed away, sings live big-band versions of Latin standards “Como Fue,” made famous by Beny Moré, and Arsenio Rodrîguez’s picante “Mami Me Gustó.” Another widely recorded evergreen, “Lagrimas Negras” by the great Miguel Matamoros, is interpreted here in a heart-grinding studio version with Portuondo, Ochoa and laud player Barbarito Torres. According to the liner notes, the track was not previously released because the producers felt it was too well known to have an impact on the original Buena Vista album. That reasoning is testimony to the abundance and quality of the recordings that were created in the Havana studio.
There is pure pleasure in listening to these well-known songs again. But Lost and Found is not just nostalgia. A standout is “Black Chicken 37,” an Afro-rooted jam recorded as a contender for bassist Orlando “Cachaito” López’s solo album. Conga player Miguel Angá Diaz, these days known as the late father of the Cuban-French twins who make up the duo Ibeyi, is smoking here, dueling with Cachaito and other musicians. The Buena Vista Social club, now a multi-generational group with limited participation onstage from the grand Portuondo, will play across the U.S. starting with an Aug. 15 date in Saratoga, CA. The tour wraps up at New York City’s Beacon Theater in November.