Review Summary: 1940s Cuba encapsulated, packaged, and shipped to your front door.
The Buena Vista Social Club in Havana, Cuba was the place to be in the 1940s. A fraternal organization for musicians where the racial divide of institutional discrimination meant nothing, The Buena Vista Social Club is a fond memory to many people of a pre-Communist Cuba where good times were still to be had. Manuel Urrutia Lleó in an attempt to create a classless, colorblind, and moral Cuba, after the revolution, closed down all of the gambling, clubbing, and enjoyment to be had in Havana. The musician's clubs did not survive. On top of the governmental suppression, pop music and salsa became the prevailing genres of the new generation's taste. That put an end to the popularity of the "son" music in Cuba. That is until Ry Cooder was stood up, by two african musicians who could not get visas in time, during a recording session in Cuba. Mr. Cooder and the other musicians already on board to record the album rounded up musicians in the area and began recording in Havana's EGREM Studios. The instruments and recording equipment were almost as old as the musician's themselves because of the embargo. AFter 6 days of recording, the album was complete, over 20 musicians had contributed to what felt like a revival of their old stomping grounds. A lot of word of mouth later, the album has sold over 5 million copies and won a grammy. I bet you are wondering how it sounds.
The first thing you notice when you press play is the frailty of the instruments. Everything sounds so old that you might guess the instruments belonged to Che Guevara. Even the voices sound like abuelo miguel singing a tune before going off to feed his chickens again. This isn't to say that the recording sounds old, no it sounds crisp and new, the musicians on the other hand do sound like veterans. Mind you, this is in no way a bad thing. The trumpets blare, the guitar shines like a lute, the weak old voices of Ibrahim Ferrer and company still have a shimmer to them. These men have aged like wine. The out of tune cowbells and other percussion add a great sense of sincerity to the album, a sense well warranted. To add to the onslaught of authenticity the lyrics are sublimely "son." Take for example the lyrics of " De Camino A La Vereda." "Usted por enamorado/ Tan viejo y con poco brillo/ El pollo que tiene al lado/ Le ha hecho perder el trillo" which translates into " Because you are in love/ so old and not too bright/ the chicken you have next to you/ has made you lose your way." The lyrics has an elegant simplicity to them, which adds quite a lot of earnestness to the album, and the words are carefully chosen so that the sounds of each letter are pleasing to the ear whether you understand them or not.
The second thing you will notice is the musicianship. These men have an impeccable sense of rhythm. Everything is as laid back as can be, and yet every little rhythm is executed perfectly. It is a mesmerizing feeling. And the harmonies of "son" music have the same magical effect. You find yourself stunned by the beauty and simplicity of the music and later frustrated when you try to replicate it on your own piano. You can really tell that these men feel and live every note that is in this music. Nowhere is this more apparent than on the "buena vista social club" track. The skillful piano playing, the mysterious harmonies, and the fantastical percussion emerse you completely into the music. These men know exactly what they are doing, they breath this music.
The album produces a sensation in you body that is foreign. Music when it is most pure is a painting of the soul of the musician, and this album paints a picture that is close to ours, but that uses different colors. Leland Whitney Crafts wrote in "Recent Experiments in Psychology" (the title is a bit outdated now because the book was published in 1950) that "If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world." This album proves that point whole-heartedly. When you listen you see the differences we as a culture have with these men, the little perceptions that make their music so different. After you listen for a while though you being to notice the similarities, the picture begins to seem more and more like your own. This album is a beautiful affirmation that though we view the world differently we are all looking at the same thing. Which is not a bad accomplishment for club who's purpose was to jam deep into the hot Havana nights.