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  • 10 / 15 / 2006

The funeral cortege moving past the flaking facades of a Cuban backstreet in the late Eighties might have marked the end of the Cuban dance hall sound. Among those mourning the death of Enrique Jorrin, the musician credited with the invention of the cha-cha-cha rhythm, was the pianist Ruben Gonzalez, who was then little known outside his own country. Gonzalez was convinced that the death of Jorrin, whose band he had joined in the mid-Fifties, was the end of an era. Finally the old music had gone. The restrained boleros, the cha-cha-cha and the mambo would all now be drowned out by the disco music that had taken hold of the nightclubs and casinos of the island.

How wrong Gonzalez was. The 'old music' was yet to enjoy its most successful moment of all. Ten years ago an album which was met with unprecedented international enthusiasm was put together in Havana by a group of old men and whimsically titled Buena Vista Social Club. What was more surprising still for Gonzalez, who was by then in his late seventies, was that he was at the very centre of this late flowering of Cuban music.

The astonishing reaction to this famous recording has established it as a classic component of record collections. It has sold more than eight million copies and the songs are now some of the best known in the world. Today you are still likely to hear a track such as 'Dos Gardenias' or 'Chan Chan', whether you are standing at a bar on a Greek island, in Japan or in Canada. And the effect of the album ripples on. Now a new recording, reviewed below, features some of the Cuban artists that Buena Vista brought to fame on current hits.

Sadly singer Ibrahim Ferrer and Gonzalez are no longer around to enjoy the 10th birthday celebrations. Ferrer died last year aged 78, while Gonzalez, described by many as one of the greatest pianists of his generation, died at the end of 2003. Singer and guitarist Compay Segundo also died that year, so perhaps music history will judge it is this anniversary which really marks the end of Cuban music's golden era.

The impact on Cuban culture of Buena Vista has been immense. One of Fidel Castro's junior ministers confided to the Cuban music expert Peter Culshaw during his recent visit to the island that Buena Vista Social Club had more or less single-handedly saved the revolution. Just when the Cuban economy was buckling under the strain of the withdrawal of Russian state aid, suddenly everyone wanted to be involved with Cuba, or its music at least.

The unusual sound of the initial album was partly down to the nature of the studio where the sessions took place. Culshaw, who has spent time at Egrem Studios in the old quarter of Havana, remembers Nick Gold, the risk-taking owner of World Circuit, the British record label behind Buena Vista, once using a phrase to describe the rich, reverberative quality of the building: 'He said: "It's as though all that great music over the years has seeped into the walls."'

The album was almost made as an accident. Studio time had been booked to work on a mix of African and Cuban music, but some of the musicians could not fly in due to visa problems. With guitarist and producer Ry Cooder arriving imminently, a young Cuban musician and arranger called Juan de Marcos Gonzalez persuaded Ruben Gonzalez, who didn't even have a piano at the time, to help him put together a scratch band. When Cooder flew in he was impressed and remembers asking de Marcos whether he knew anyone who still sang in the high tenor lyric voice popular in the Forties and Fifties. 'There's only one guy left,' de Marcos replied. 'There's only one man. And it's Ibrahim Ferrer. And he's hard to find. And he's on the streets somewhere. And I'll go find him.'

Ferrer was in his late sixties and had fallen on hard times, shining shoes and selling lottery tickets, but de Marcos found him. Other talented singers joined the sessions, such as Omara Portuondo and the octogenarian Compay Segundo.

In all, three albums were recorded in Egrem Studios in those three weeks in 1996, including a solo one from Ruben Gonzalez and another by the Afro-Cuban All Stars. All the projects were hits, but it was Buena Vista that really took off.

Source: The Observer

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