Buena Vista Social Club
World Circuit, 1997
REVIEW BY: Michael Broyles
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/02/2010
“Ay mama, ¿que´paso? Ay mama, que´paso?” (Oh mama, what happened?) sings Buena Vista Social Club in “El Cuarto De Tula” before answering:”El cuarto de Tula, le cogió candela/ Se quedó dormida y no apagó la vela” (“It’s Tula’s bedroom, it’s gone up in flames/She fell asleep and didn’t blow out the candle”). Of course, maybe it is not that Tula’s bedroom is literally inflamed, but maybe Tula herself is inflamed with passion, lust, sensuality, revolution…I do not know for sure. The Buena Vista Social Club seems obsessed with this idea of being on fire; this imagery is used on another song named “Candela,” in which singer Ibrahim Ferrer proclaims “Ay candela, candela, candela me quemo aé” (“Oh fire, fire, fire, I’m burning!”). And with good reason. Their self-titled album will leave one inflamed emotionally, physically, spiritually, and sensually. In other words, this music is caliente, in every sense.
The upbeat son and son/tumbao “El Cuarto De Tula” and “Candela” are the most danceable, exciting songs on the album and certainly those best to use when introducing someone to Cuban music. Comprised of once well-known Cuban musicians, their playing was previously lost in the entrails of history amidst Communist takeover and American bans on Cuban imports (which at one point included musical imports) until producer Ry Cooder sought out each musician to create this incredible album and testament to the enduring spirit of music. Along with offering inspiring dance songs, Buena Vista Social Club also provides thoughtful, reflective tunes such as “Chan Chan” and “Pablo Nuevo.” Sung by Eliades Ochoa, “Chan Chan” has a brooding sense of wanderlust as the story of Juanika and Chan Chan, two young lovers, unfolds from the mouth of a traveling guajiro (peasant). “Pablo Nuevo” is an instrumental danzón featuring the brilliance of Rubén González, a pianist whose joyful playing is matched only by his superb sense of timing and melody. González is my favorite musician in Buena Vista Social Club and will hopefully be studied by aspiring young pianists for years to come.
But what is an album of Cuban music without a few boleros to offer insight into the blossoming and dying nature of love. Take the soft, passionate songs “Dos Gardenias” and “Veinte Años.” Starting with a haunting trumpet that plays throughout, Ibrahim Ferrer pours his heart out for his maiden, giving her two Gardenias to say “Te quiero, te adoro, mi vida” (“I love you, I adore you, my life”). Still, he warns “Pero si un atardecer/ Las gardenias de mi amor se mueren/ Es porque han adivinado/Que tu amor me ha traicionado” (“But if one late evening/ The Gardenias should die/ It’s because they know/ That you have betrayed me”). Likewise, singer Omara Portuondo sullenly tells her distant lover “Tu me quisieras lo mismo/ Que veinte años atrás.” (“If only you would love me/As you did twenty years ago”). This is heavy stuff, man! “Veinte Años” is so well executed in its perfectly sullen humility that, even without at first understanding the English translation, I could hear the heartbreaking erosion of a 20-year romance.
There is simply too much to say about Buena Vista Social Club to put into this short review. Every song deserves its own book, its own dance, and its own memory. Much like James Joyce wrote an epic novel based on the Irish folk song “Finnegan’s Wake,” so too do these songs contain the power, emotion, and metaphor that has filled the pages of literature, storytelling, and philosophy since the beginning of humankind. This is a must have for any music fan. I suggest you purchase this album immediately.