Hotel nacional de Cuba

It all started as a bit of an accident. A big fan of Cuban music, American guitarist Ry Cooder had been invited to Cuba to work on a collaboration with local musicians and two well-known musical stars from Mali. When the Africans were denied entry visas to Cuba, Cooder set about creating his Plan B: A recording of Cuban son music with local musicians.

A Star is Born

The resulting album, recorded in only six days, included the title track Buena Vista Social Club and was released to critical acclaim in 1997. International demand for the Cubans to perform the songs live on stage soon followed and the Buena Vista Social Club name became known worldwide in 1999 when a documentary movie was released (catch the trailer below). The film told of the reforming of the band and the individual tales of the elderly musicians. Millions of movie and music fans around the world were eager to learn about and embrace Latin music. But what about the original pre-revolution Buena Vista Social Club?

The Original Cuban Music Clubs

Social clubs were a common phenomenon in 1930s and 1940s Cuba. Run very much along racial lines, there were hundreds of clubs covering every ethnic group and catering to a wide range of interests. The Buena Vista Social Club was a place where local musicians would perform different styles of music that reflected the tastes of the time: Latin jazz, cha-cha-cha, rumba and mambo took their turns here.

Perhaps the myth of the club is greater than its reality ever was, as when the film crew were researching the history of the club the old folks of Havana couldn’t even agree on where it had stood. The Buena Vista Social Club shut its doors soon after the revolution, but Cuban music continued to develop in the bars and clubs of Cuba.

Cuban Son Music

The greatest single influence on Cuban music, indeed Latin music in general, is considered to be ‘son.’ Described by many as the foundation of all Latin music it is easy to identify son as the root of many of the modern Latin musical genres. It is son that is the focus of the current incarnation of Buena Vista Social Club (many of the original oldtimers have passed away) as they continue to perform around the world.

Visit Cuba today* and you’ll hear a rich diversity of music in the clubs and bars. Be warned, however, that if you hear an old tune that you think you recognize from the Buena Vista Social Club, it’s probably being played for the benefit of the tourists. For the people of Cuba the music has long moved on.

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