Twenty years ago this month, Americans were introduced to the romantic sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club. It was an unlikely group of stars: mostly elderly musicians from Cuba playing very old-fashioned music. But when the group’s debut album was released in 1997, it wound up selling millions of records around the world.
Buena Vista Social Club started out as a very different album from the one you know. The previous year, British record producer Nick Gold and American guitarist Ry Cooder had the idea to show the connections between Cuban and West African music. They arranged for a group of musicians from Mali to record in Havana with musicians from the island. But Gold says that, as often happens, bureaucracy got in the way.
“The Africans couldn’t make the trip because [their] passports were sent to Burkina Faso to get visas — and they didn’t come back,” he recalls. “So the Africans couldn’t come.” (Gold did eventually manage to realize that Cuba-Mali project; AfroCubismwas released in 2010.)
Studio time had been booked at Cuba’s national recording label, EGREM, whose main studio was built by RCA Victor in the 1940s. Before the revolution in 1959, everyone — from Cuban stars to Nat King Cole — recorded there. Gold raves, “The actual room has got the nicest sound I’ve ever heard in any studio. It has this beautiful natural reverb.”
“I mean, I don’t know if we knew that it would be financially or commercially successful, but we knew something amazing was going down,” Gold says. Some of these older musicians had once been famous in Cuba, and some had not. But Gold believed they were all ready for their moment in the spotlight: “They knew they had nothing to prove. They knew why they were there.”
A few of the musicians hadn’t performed in years. In a 1999 interview with Fresh Air, Ry Cooder recalled asking Juan de Marcos González if anyone still sang the old-fashioned ballads called boleros.
“We asked, ‘Does anybody still sing this way? This beautiful high tenor lyric voice?'” Cooder explained. “He says, ‘There’s only one guy left … and this is Ibrahim Ferrer. And he’s hard to find. He’s on the street somewhere.’ He went out and he came back two hours later with this really strange-looking fellow — he’s just very skinny, moves like an old cat.”
Ferrer was 69 years old at the time, and shining shoes to earn a bit of money.
“He says, ‘So, what do you want me for? I don’t sing anymore,'” Cooder continued. “I’m thinking, ‘This is somebody, you know, this guy’s heavy. Put him up in front of a microphone and see what he’s going to do here.'”