Review of Buena Vista Social Club 25th Anniversary edition album

A quarter of a century ago, Nick Gold and Juan de Marcos González, along with some world class Cuban musicians, created the Buena Vista Social Club which thanks to their knowledge, skill and passion, became one of the most successful recordings in world music, as well as spawning countless international tours and solo careers that continue today.

The original plan was to experiment by pairing musicians from Mali with those in eastern Cuba. The Malians couldn’t make it, so Juan de Marcos instead gathered an all-star line-up comprising musicians from across the island, many of whom had never worked together before: Eliades Ochoa with his rural ‘son’ from Oriente, Ruben González whose piano graced the clubs of 1950s Havana, Omara Portuondo who came from the sensual ‘filin’ movement of the ‘60s, Cachaito from a long line of great bassists, amongst others. Most were still working, others, such as Ibrahim Ferrer had retired. Compay Segundo, who at 89 was the oldest having performed since the 1930s, brought his baritone voice and some self-penned songs such as the now famous opening track ‘Chan Chan’.

In March 1996 they all gathered at the legendary EGREM studios in Havana for seven days of recording. American musician Ry Cooder, an avid collector of Cuban music, was enthusiastic to participate as producer, and to make subtle musical contributions to the sound, and he possibly helped performances take place in the USA, which had previously (and wilfully) been ignorant of these treasures.

The classic Cuban songs from various genres – bolero, son montuno, son-guaracha – were captured during a single week of magic, every musician giving their best. These songs were alive, being performed and danced to across Cuba before Buena Vista was a hit and they will continue to be an integral part of Cuban culture for many years. What Buena Vista did was bring it to the world, restoring Cuban Son to its rightful place as a major force. 

This 25th anniversary release is a great way to re-acquaint us. The original 14 tracks have been completely re-mastered so that the singing and playing shines through, and on CD2 there are 12 bonus tracks with include (sometimes more satisfying) alternate takes and new songs. The whole thing is beautifully packaged with a booklet containing stories about the songs, lyrics, and photos.

Every track is a classic. Personally, I’m a fan of the country sound of songs like ‘El Carretero’ and ‘Candela’ as they evoke memories of great Saturday nights spent at the Casa de la Trova in Santiago de Cuba during the early ‘90s. Ferrer’s performance of the romantic bolero ‘Dos Gardenias’ is a real high point too, especially in the alternate version.

Those fans of Cuban music who were put off by the huge success of the Buena Vista project (or saw it as all-encompassing, and a detriment to new music) are urged to listen with fresh ears to this tribute to the roots of Cuban dance music and discover that –  in the end – there is no substitute for great musicians playing great songs.

Dave Willetts for CubaSi magazine Autumn 2021

Buy the album here