Music: A Cuban Love Affair

People on the move

  • Buena Vista Social Club, on CD
  • Ruben Gonzalez. Photograph by Max Jourdan/ World Circuit
  • Omara Portuondo. Photograph by Donata Wenders
  • Ibrahim Ferrer. Photograph by Youri Lenquette

If you wanted to win a Grammv, sell two million albums and make one of the top ten highest -grossing documentary films ever, would you choose to do it wIth a handful of near-forgotten geriatric musicians in Havana who hadn’t played or sung a note in years? Probably not. But that’s precisely the trick the Buena Vista Social Club pulled off. Now, three of the group’s stars return to London this spring for two separate performances.

Theirs is a good story: Ry Cooder, the American guitarist, famed for cross-cultural collaborations, gathered a casual and almost accidental group of Cuban old-timers who put down some classic son, danzon and bolero tracks on CD, called it by that most unpromising name-Buena VistaSocialClub – toured briefly in Europe and the USA, and unexpectedly spearheaded one of the great musical phenomena of recent times – the revival of son.

London fell completely under the spell of the sheer musicality of 92-year old vocalist and guitarist Compay Segundo, 79-year-old Ruben Gonzalez, 74-year-old Ibrahim Ferrer, and the only female singer, Omara Portuondo, backed by a rhythm section that made sitting still in your seat impossible. Then celebrated German director Wim Wenders heard the CD. He, too, succumbed to the Cuban magic and captured the band’s tour on film.

The world has always been partial to Afro-Cuban music. The cha-cha-cha was as big in its day as reggae in the ’70s. The mambo, conga and rumba were the dance-floor music of the 1930s and 1940s. But son is a form steeped in tradition, which seems to have been preserved by the US blockade on Cuba. It’s a unique marriage of African rhythms and European melodies in folksongs about love and country life, based on the clave rhythmic pattern. But without salsa, which has its roots in son, and tends to describe most AfroCuban music, audiences outside of Cuba may not have been quite so ready to embrace the old men and their ballads.

There are around 40 salsa clubs in Britain, and salsa bands now make a regular appearance at the Notting Hill Carnival. During the past 20 to 30 years, leading exponents of Latin Jazz and Afro-Cuban sounds such as Paquito de Rivera, Tito Puente and Arturo Sandoval, and singers such as Celia Cruz, Pablo Milanes and, latterly, Gloria Estefan, have been playing their part in keeping Cuban music alive on disc or in the clubs of London, New York, Miami and Los Angeles.

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And the ’80s explosion in popularity of world music stimulated our appetite for the pure, strange and beautiful. The end of the Cold War did not thaw the American freeze on trade with Cuba, but keen interest in authentic Cuban music in the USA and Europe has stimulated the Cuban music industry and led to a strange double-speak in which Cubans are granted work permits to perform their music on the American mainland and sell Havana-made recordings in sufficient quantities to go gold.

But music lovers and Cuba-watchers let these contradictions pass. If you manage to make it to one of the London concerts, you will lose yourself in the sheer virtuosity, rhythm and imagination of music-makers whose styles recall the great heyday of Cuban music with a fresh enthusiasm and verve that is simply fascinating.

Ruben Gonzalez and Ibrahim Ferrer perform at The Royal Albert Hall on May 13 and 14. Omara Portuondo played the Royal Festival Hall on April 27.