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Cuba Libre

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Buena Vista Social Club – Various Artists

It is better to discover brilliance later than not at all. As with John William’s magnificent book Stoner so with the CD entitled Buena Vista Social Club, produced by Ry Cooder and released in September 1997. It has been an album long on my list to get but to my shame it has taken me sixteen and a half years and a trip to a car boot sale to do so.

Recorded in just six days and featuring 14 tracks the album is named after a members-only club which flourished in Havana in pre-Castro days. After Castro liberated Cuba in 1959 the island was pretty much isolated from the rest of the world and the former musical traditions were kept alive, pretty much unadulterated by passing Occidental fads. Technically, the music on the CD is a mix of son, danzon and bolero and the players are the incomparable Cuban masters of these musical genres.

The stand out track for me is the opener, Chan Chan, a four chord son which has an infectious dance beat that defies anyone to resist it and is performed by its composer, Compay Segundo, who at the time of the recording was 89 years old. De Camino a la Verada is sung by the 72 year old Ibrahim Ferrer who wrote the 1950s hit and who apparently interrupted his daily walk through the Cuban capital to pop into the studio to record it. He also sings on the 1940s hit, Dos Gardenias, which is a bolero.

The 77 year-old Ruben Gonzalez, the famous pianist who astonishingly had had no access to a piano and had given up playing because of arthritis in his fingers, gives an amazing performance on Pablo Nuevo which in style is a blend of jazz and mambo.

The 14 tracks are all masterpieces in their own right, all performed and recorded live, some in the musicians’ own flats. Cooder is to be complimented for getting all these elderly artists to commit their music to the digital medium. The only criticism I would levy is that Cooder felt it necessary or couldn’t resist the temptation to play on some of the tracks. His slide guitar work, for example, on Orgullecida detracts from the feel of the track. Rather like Jools Holland we should thank him for bringing obscure and neglected musicians to our attention but he should be told to keep the hell away from the instruments.

A wonderful album which recaptures the essence of Havana in the 1930s to 1950s and a testament to real music and real musicianship.

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