By Isabel Morales
On the outer edge of southwestern Havana, Cuba, there is a large neighborhood called Marianao, where The Buena Vista Social Club began. The Buena Vista Social Club is a story of talented Afro-Cuban musicians and artists who saw their music fading into oblivion after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, but who never abandoned the hope to see their music thrive again. It is a story of the revival of long-forgotten musicians and a genre that is at the heart of Cuban Music: the son cubano—a quintessential Afro-Cuban musical form.
Son has a broad range of meaning, from the designation of its complex musical elements to the identification of the essence of Cuban music—or the thing that makes it Cuban. However, son translates roughly to “the Cuban sound” (Robbins, 1990). The Cuban son originated in the eastern region of Cuba in the late 1800s, when there was a fusion of African musical traditions of the Bantu people with Spanish musical traditions. The early son instruments were a trio composed of claves (a percussion set of wooden sticks), maracas, and a guitar which then evolved to include the tres (a type of six-string guitar), bongo drums, trumpets, and the piano (Ilich, 2019). At the beginning of the 20th century, the son was a genre popular among Afro-Cubans and the working classes, which created a negative association with the genre fueled by racism and discrimination. Despite these existing prejudices, the Cuban son’s popularity rapidly spread throughout the country (Tierra, 2019).
The social club was established in the 1940s—during Cuba’s musical golden age that lasted from 1930-1959. It started off as an only-members venue and acted as a hub for artists that led activities such as musical and dance performances. The club was mainly run my members that represented a cabildo (African ethnic associations in colonial Cuba), as Cuban society during this period was organized around these clubs whose membership was determined by ethnicity (Cunningham, 2018). Racial discrimination against Afro-Cubans was institutionalized, therefore Black and mixed-race Cubans were not allowed in the luxurious cabarets and casinos in which white Cubans and foreigners socialized. It marked a peak of American tourism to Cuba and the nightlife scene of casinos and nightclubs, many of which were funded by American gangsters. The Cuban government during this period, especially the dictator Fulgencio Batista, facilitated the investments of American mafia on the island (Bodenheimer, 2019).
Batista’s regime ended with the onset of the Cuban revolution, led by Fidel Castro in 1959, and it marked a huge turning point for Cuban musical culture. The newly elected President Manuel Urrutia Lleó, began closing casinos, nightclubs, and other establishments, to allow for a more racially integrated and egalitarian society, and because they were seen as symbols of capitalism and foreign imperialism (Cunningham, 2018). Because the revolution banned racial segregation, the recreational clubs that Afro-Cubans were members of were also outlawed, since they were believed to continue this idea of racial division within society—resulting in the closure of The Buena Vista Social Club (Cunningham, 2018).
Though the Cuban government continued to support traditional Cuban music after the revolution, the emergence of pop music and salsa began to overshadow traditional Afro-Cuban music and several musicians lost their jobs. Many of them thought their musical days were over. However, The Buena Vista Social Club was reintroduced during the 1990s (Cunningham, 2018).
After the Soviet collapse in the 1990s, Cuba was just beginning to open back up to the outside world. Tourism was restarting and record companies from abroad begun their hunt for musical talent on the island (Barton, 2019). Today, Cuba is one of the most popular Caribbean destinations, with travel bans for its citizens lifted, economic reforms initiated, and trade restrictions eased. Though these changes were most likely inevitable, the Buena Vista Social Club project and its musicians played a huge role in changing the world’s view of the country and culture (Barton, 2019). British record producer Nick Gold and American guitarist Ry Cooder had the idea of showing the connection of Cuban and West African music. With the help of Cuban bandleader Juan de Marcos González, they began assembling a group of traditional Cuban musicians who had performed at the Buena Vista Club during its golden era and were in their 70s and even late 80s (Tsioulcas, 2017). They recruited musicians such as Ibrahim Ferrer, who, at the time they found him, was 69 years old, no longer singing, and shining shoes to earn some money. Therefore, many of the musicians had not performed in years, but one thing they still had was a huge faith in their music: the Cuban son (Tsioulcas, 2017).
At the time of their album’s release in 1997, no one realized how big of an impact it would have. It became the best-selling album in Cuban history and its massive success brought back artists who were lost in history and a genre that was almost forgotten. It has been more than twenty years since the Buena Vista Social Club album was released, and several of its stellar musicians have passed away (Tsioulcas, 2017). Yet, their music continues to be widely known on the island and abroad. In Havana’s street corners, one can still here musicians regularly playing the son interpreted by The Buena Vista Social Club.
Popular songs by The Buena Vista Social Club:
1. Chan Chan
2. Dos Gardenias
3. El Cuarto de Tula
4. El Carretero
5. De Camino a La Vereda
Barton, L. (2019, June 12). Buena Vista Social Club: the legends look back. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/mar/22/buena-vista-social-club-the-sweet-sound-of-cuba
Bodenheimer, R. (2019, October 4). Buena Vista Social Club: Cuban Music Recaptures the World’s Attention. ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/buena-vista-social-club-4768508
Cunningham, E. (2018, September 19). The Amazing And Eternal Legacy Of The Buena Vista Social Club. Culture Trip. https://theculturetrip.com/caribbean/cuba/articles/a-musical-legacy-the-buena-vista-social-club/
Ilich, T. (2019, March 28). What Is Son Cubano Music? LiveAbout. https://www.liveabout.com/son-the-heart-of-cuban-music-2141561
Robbins, J. (1990). The Cuban "Son" as Form, Genre, and Symbol. Latin American Music Review / Revista De Música Latinoamericana, 11(2), 182-200. doi:10.2307/780124
Tierra, C. (2019, November 1). El son cubano, su origen, historia y evolución [The Cuban son, its origin, history, and evolution]. About Español. https://www.aboutespanol.com/el-son-cubano-su-origen-historia-y-evolucion-298254
Tsioulcas, A. (2017, September 26). 20 Years On, That Buena Vista Social Club Magic Endures. npr. https://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2017/09/26/552677631/20-years-on-that-buena-vista-social-club-magic-endures