Swept away by their live performance, Gina Kate Heslington and Edward Fisher talk to the group of musicians keeping the memories of Havana’s golden age alive.
We arrive mid-way through the first song as the conductor, Jesús Ramos, is clicking his fingers and tapping his left foot rhythmically to the harmony, literally mesmerising spectators. Conveying a universal humour in a way that only music can, they accompany their playing with cheerful dancing; breaking down the language barriers between artist and audience. As the final stretch of the two and a half hour concert approached, singer Carlos Colunga instructed us in calm, assured English to get up from our seats and dance. We dutifully obeyed.
Clearing the debris from the backstage bar as I prepared to meet Buena Vista Social Club, I find myself disappointed at the lack of empty bottles of expensive rum and cigar-ends. Just as I am pulling up more chairs, a group of refined looking gentlemen stroll into the room – like souvenirs from a past century. I am immediately enveloped in a speedy torrent of Spanish that drips with their characteristically heavy Cuban accent, making it at times hard to understand. A whirlwind of kisses make for a greeting. As I am passed from musician to musician; my own lips butterfly from the trimmed greying beards of the older members to the well-shaven faces of the younger, as the heady scent of spicy aftershave lingers in the air.
This is the Buena Vista Social Club, a team of extraordinarily accomplished musicians, Cuban music legends, brought together in 1997 by guitarist Ry Cooder to produce the Grammy award winning album of the same name. Having sold over seven million copies and rated as number 260 in ‘The 500 Greatest Albums of all Time’ by Rolling Stones magazine, my first question is how they managed such astronomic international success (extremely rare for a non-English language group). The answer from them is simple: “Because the public enjoy it, that is why we have lasted so long. It is traditional Cuban music. Up until now it has been successful and we hope it will continue to be so.”
Often referred to as the ‘Superabuelos’ (Super Grandfathers), I run my eyes over the ancient performers and am somewhat sceptical, just how much longer can they really continue, considering that most of their careers peaked in the 40s and 50s? I am answered with a delighted peal of laughter. “For at least another seventy or eighty years! We are certainly not immortal, and we are getting on a bit, but we’ll see,” ponders 75-year-old Manuel ‘Guajiro’ Mirabal, sucking on his false teeth good humouredly. I can’t help wondering how they affect his extraordinary trumpet playing, but as he is widely regarded as a musicians’ musician, and further as one of the four most famous members making up the eleven-piece orchestra from Havana, I hesitate to ask.
Buoyed by their enthusiasm and their open answers, I feel like I am sitting in the company of great-uncles at a family reunion. There is a genuine feeling of affection displayed in their behaviour towards one another. So I ask what Buena Vista means to each of them personally.
“For me, it means good luck, good fortune,” answers Angel Terry Domech in a husky voice, who plays the Congas (tall Cuban drums of African origin).
“For me, it signifies the music of Cuba,” Jesús ‘Aguaje’ Ramos adds with a hearty smile, beads of sweat shining on his dark polished scalp, collecting in the sausage-ring of fat around his starched shirt collar. As band-leader, revered trombone player, and musical director of the show, his personality is as big as his list of credentials. His straightforward answer is indicative of the songs Buena Vista perform, traditional, well loved Cuban melodies like danzón, cha cha cha, and boleros, retold through the skilled fingers of these musical geniuses.
“Buena Vista is my second family,” Guajiro Mirabal’s gravelly voice reveals, as the others watch him with looks of respectful devotion, regarding him through his thick rimmed glasses, peering out from beneath his white flat cap.
“It represents Cuba,” says Manuel Galban, guitarist, organist and pianist, who has performed on a number of albums in the Buena Vista series and whose duets album with Ry Cooder, Mambo Sinuendo won him a Grammy in 2004.
The relative baby of the group, singer Carlos Colunga ambles towards us. A new addition to the group, he readily gives me his answer. “Like Teri, for me it means good luck. We have chosen the repertory of our country and to be honest, and forgive the lack of modesty, we are good musicians.” Crumpling under the eyes of his elders, perhaps for his boldness, he hastily pulls up a seat and squeaks, “I’m the worst!” as those around him indulge him with good-natured laughter.
Conscious of an absence, I enquire after the “heartbeat” of Buena Vista Social Club, bass player Orlando ‘Cachaíto’ López, the only musician who has played on every track of every album ever recorded by the group. I am told he is “a man of few words,” or in my case, none at all. His non-attendance reminds me of the unusually fluid nature of the group.
Of the twenty artists who originally contributed to the very first album, few remain. The popular veteran singer, Ibrahim Ferrer, for example, passed away in 2005. Manuel “Puntillita” Licea, another vocalist, died in 2000, pianist Rubén González in 2003, and singer Pío Leyva in 2006. So what is it that holds a group together which has no defining members? I am haunted (disturbingly) by the memory of the nineties pop band S-Club 7, who already had their team of replacements ‘S-Club Juniors’ in training before they had hit the age of thirty. Could this be the same for Buena Vista, more brand than band?
“In some ways, yes,” muses Jesús Ramos. “We are consciously creating this music, as it was in the fourties and fifties. We go for traditional songs; we play acoustic music, not electric, but natural. From concert to concert we try to get to the roots of the music of our country, and to reproduce a faithful reproduction of how it used to be played.”
The more I talk to the group, the more I begin to understand and appreciate their very essence. They are not a typical modern band brought together in order to create a new and original type of sound. Each member has had a long and successful solo career, and comes to the band seeking not to further their individual fame, but rather to preserve the past. Based purely on a member’s talent and merit, their agenda is to transport the public into an oasis of Caribbean sound, allowing old, otherwise obsolete songs to live on. “Many have contributed in one way or another,” continues Ramos happily, “Women too, of course. We are like one big family.”
“This music was famous in the fifties; it was the golden age of Cuban music,” interjects Guajiro Mirabal. “Buena Vista tries to renovate it rather than change it, to bring it up-to-date. We try to play it as it used to be played and bring it back to popularity.” In an age where media attention is largely paid solely to those who build their image upon the values of superficiality and sex appeal, it is clear that the success of this band relies on their talent alone. This said, their more elderly fans, who definitely take up a fair few seats in the sold-out stadium, may well have a different opinion.
Although millions of fans across the globe like to imagine the music of Buena Vista as synonymous with the crumbling streets of communist Cuba, the reality is that the locals are much more likely to be listening to reggaeton and salsa pop. So just how well known are they back home? “It’s not that it’s more popular worldwide, it’s just that more people listen to it,” responds Terry Domech, as he leans back into his chair. “We were brought up listening to this music. It is very normal and familiar in Cuba.”
Despite his answer, I am reminded of a friend’s story of their trip to Cuba the previous summer. Having bought tickets to a Buena Vista concert in Havana, they found themselves seated with only a handful of other spectators, in a venue that could have potentially been occupied by hundreds. This was not due to a lack of popularity however, the ticket vendor had explained, but because the Cuban authorities had increased the price of the tickets, with the result that locals could no longer afford them. Although the songs may be well known, Buena Vista’s international popularity has become a hindrance in its own country; at least while Castro is in charge.
For the British public, their concerts remain an enduringly enthralling experience that proves beyond all doubt that getting older does not necessarily mean retirement. Their enthusiasm is infectious to the end, “We wish to tell the British people that we are very grateful for the support that they have always shown us. Please continue to come to our concerts. We are the Buena Vista Social Club orchestra; we look forward to seeing you.”