The story of the Buena Vista Social Club's rise to phenomenal worldwide fame is not just about a musical group. It is the story of a country. It is the story of how politics were unable to destroy the musical heart of a people.
Cuba's traditional 'Son' music is a combination of African rhythms fused with European melodic styles. It was born in the barrios of the poorest parts of Havana in pre-communist times. When Fidel Castro's revolution changed the face of Cuba forever, the systematic extermination of indigenous culture began. The 'social clubs' of the poor people and the nightclubs of the rich were converted to 'worker recreational centers'. Although Cuban descendants of Africa were now supposed to be equal to the aristocratic Spanish families, the expectation was for new styles of music to be created, styles dedicated to the glory of the Revolution. The old was frowned upon, and most of all the Son, a so-called symbol of oppression. And so, in its very birthplace, a rich tradition could have been lost forever.
Instead, it lived on thanks to Son musicians suddenly out of work, who continued getting together in their homes. Some music did manage to escape to the United States over the years, with Cubans who fled Castro, but the fact that Cuban music was wildly popular in the U.S remained unknown to those left behind. This music was named 'Salsa' to distance it from its Son roots. But it was this music's origins that captured the interest of famed guitarist Ry Cooder and Nick Gold, the pioneer record producer of World Music. It was brought to their attention by Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, a young Cuban musician dedicated to keeping traditional Cuban music alive for younger generations. Cooder and Gold went to Cuba in March of 1996 to record the forgotten greats of Son, people now in their 70s and 80s. The resulting CD won a Grammy, inspired an award-winning documentary, and brought super stardom to some elder statesmen of music, who now sell out tickets around the world.
The phenomenon continues. Copay Secondo, Ruben Gonzalez, Omara Portuondo, Ibrahim Ferrer - who was born at a social club dance! - and others, became stars, traveling the globe and performing at concerts to adoring fans. In 2004, a nightclub called the Floridita opened in London, offering Cuban musicians a permanent home.
And from all this foreign attention, Cuba's music has been reclaimed in its native land. The state-owned recording label Egrem, in whose studio the original CD was recorded, has entered the worldwide musical market.
The vibrant music of Son is like its people, whose irrepressible high spirits cannot die. An infectious rhythm stirs the body as bongos, trumpets, guitars, claves, maracas and piano vie with each other in playful musical exchange. The expressive vocal arrangements bring alive the African 'call and response'
Son has called to the world and the world has responded. But Son has also, at last, come home.