Cuban Hit Parade

Buena Vista Social Club

recording produced by Ry Cooder
Nonesuch 79478-2, $10.99, cassette

Afro-Cuban All Stars: A Toda Cuba le Gusta

recording produced by Nick Gold and Juan de Marcos González
Nonesuch 79476-2, $10.99, cassette

Introducing…Rubén González

recording produced by Nick Gold
Nonesuch 79477-2, $10.99, cassette

For two weeks in March of 1996, at a shabby recording studio in downtown Havana, a group of mostly elderly Cuban musicians gathered for a series of recording sessions under the aegis of Ry Cooder, the US guitarist, composer, and producer. In the course of those few sessions, some produced directly by Cooder, others produced and arranged by the Cuban musician Juan de Marcos González, the artists recorded enough material for three compact discs: Introducing…Rubén González, Afro-Cuban All Stars, and the album by which the sessions and all three discs have collectively become known, Buena Vista Social Club.

As of this month, Buena Vista Social Club, having gone platinum (one million copies sold worldwide), is officially the best-selling Afro-Cuban album of all time. It is a hit in Plymouth, England, as well as in Paris and Buenos Aires. A concert by a selection of the recordings’ soloists played to delirious crowds at Carnegie Hall earlier this year, and los del Buena Vista—including the seventy-nine-year-old pianist Rubén González and the singers Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer, now ninety-one and seventy-one, respectively—are regular stars on the international tour circuit.

Buena Vista Social Club may come nearest to being the perfect popular music record since Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Like the Beatles’ album, it achieves the seemingly impossible goal of making odd and unknown music, sung in a foreign language (foreign, at least, to non-Latin audiences), instantly familiar, logical, and memorable, as the English-language songs on Sergeant Pepper seemed thirty years ago to non-English-speaking youths the world over.

Like Sergeant Pepper’s, Buena Vista’s impact starts from the cover, which is enchanting, surprising without being startling, and yet unique. The back and cover photographs show the weirdly lonely streets of downtown Havana; a few people stroll past the parked cars from another era now stranded in the Cuban present. On the front cover, a wiry, past-middle-age, very black man approaches the camera, paying no attention to it at all. He has the costume and the attitude of the chévere (of whom the character Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess is probably the closest US equivalent). Down, but not out, he strolls in a way that calls respectful attention to his white shoes (no matter that they are canvas sneakers and not patent leather), his white snap-brim cap, his slim hips, the cigarette in perfect balance between his lips, the jivey snap in his stride. The photograph, beautiful in itself, allows us to decipher another, most important, reason for the success of Buena Vista Social Club. When we see it, we feel heart-stopping nostalgia for something we did not realize we had been missing. That something is Cuba.

It seems to be part of Cuba’s destiny to exist in the imagination of the world, to be, always, a dream and a desire. The Revolution substituted its own dreams for the dreams of flesh and glitter that drew flocks of panting tourists to the island in the 1940s and 1950s. As it happened…

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