From 1959 to 1995, the rhythmic Cuban music Americans knew and even loved (think: Ricky Ricardo/DesiArnaz from I Love Lucy), was the victim of the trade embargo between Cuba and the United States. Barely 100 miles off the Florida coast, Cuba had long been a sultry, decadent playground for American mobsters and home to Ernest Hemingway, legendary rum, fine cigars and spicy cuisine. All of it was lived out to a soundtrack of son music, a striking fusion of Spanish, African and Caribbean music. After 1959, though, emigrations and exports from Cuba to the U.S. (and vice versa) came to a halt. Americans could only enter Cuba legally for a few reasons: one was in the interest of cultural sharing.
Born in 1947, Cooder is primarily known as a virtuosic slide guitarist who recorded solo and with the likes of the Rolling Stones. By the mid-90s, the Grammy Award-winning Cooder was entrenched in "world" music, a loose category encompassing island, African and other culturally focused rhythms and beats played on simple, traditional and sometimes indigenous instruments.
- Buena Vista Social Club featuring Omara Portuondo
In 1996, Cooder's plans included recording an album of island music featuring Malian and Cuban guitarists at the creaky, state-run EGREM Studios in Havana. And then the Malian players couldn't make the trip. So for the next three weeks Cooder recorded a group of veteran Cuban musicians including guitarist Ibrahim Ferrer, OmaraPortuondo and others to create what became Buena Vista Social Club.
Named after a scenic bay on the island's north coast (Buena Vista means "good view" in Spanish), the original, physical Buena Vista Social Club was a "members club" in Havana known for its dances and popularity with local musicians: it closed in the 1940s. But the eponymously named album Cooder recorded in just 21 days reopened a door to Cuba's hypnotic allure that was hard to resist. The "club's" first album went platinum and gave listeners an aural glimpse into a country untouched by "progress", decaying and stuck in time, and beautiful and romantic in ways that simply wouldn't have been possible had there been no embargo for all those years.
Buena Vista Social Club performs at Clowes Hall, Friday September 27th at 8:00 p.m.