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25 Years After Its Release, Examining The Legacy Of 'Buena Vista Social Club'

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Ah, listen to that. This month, we are marking the 25th anniversary of a beloved classic of Cuban music - the "Buena Vista Social Club" is the name of the record and the group that recorded it. It was an unlikely hit in the 1990s, an album of old-fashioned music from a group of legendary old-timers in Cuba's music scene, some well into their 70s and 80s. Producers brought them together to recreate the music of pre-Revolutionary Cuba.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHAN CHAN")

BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTIN: The album sold millions of copies. There were concerts, even a hit documentary about the group. The success gave a huge boost to many of the musicians themselves and created a whole new level of enthusiasm for this kind of music. Joining us now to talk about the legacy of the record, music journalist Judy Cantor-Navas. Judy, thank you for being here.

JUDY CANTOR-NAVAS: Thank you so much, Rachel.

MARTIN: Where does that music take you when you hear it, especially that song in particular?

CANTOR-NAVAS: Well, just hearing that song, "Chan Chan," I mean, it really brings back so many memories. Personally, it mostly does bring me back to Havana at that time. You know, I had the pleasure of meeting those musicians. But that song was just everywhere.

MARTIN: Can you tell us a little bit more about how this collaboration came to be?

CANTOR-NAVAS: Yeah. Actually, what became the "Buena Vista Social Club" album - it really was not supposed to happen. Nick Gold, at the time, was the president of the indie label World Circuit Records. He had invited American guitarist Ry Cooder to Havana to produce a record. But it was going to be a record with African musicians from Mali, together with musicians from Santiago de Cuba. But the African musicians didn't make it to Havana. So Ry Cooder and Nick Gold decided to take the opportunity to bring together some more local talent in the studio. They wanted that record that would hark back to a vintage Cuban sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB SONG, "CANDELA")

CANTOR-NAVAS: The person who brought these musicians together was Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, who's a Cuban musician, a Cuban bandleader. So when they found themselves in this position, Juan de Marcos went out to find these musicians, some of whom had already retired. Most of them had not played together before, but as he rightly suspected, they made this perfect combination in the studio.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANDELA")

BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTIN: You got to meet these musicians. Can you tell us a little bit about them?

CANTOR-NAVAS: Yes. To the outside world, they seemed like unlikely superstars, but they really weren't such a motley crew, as many perceived them to be. The singer and guitarist, Compay Segundo, he was almost 90 years old when the album was recorded, but he really was a Cuban country music legend. And then pianist Ruben Gonzalez - he performed with the great Arsenio Rodriguez. But when Juan de Marcos convinced him to come in for the session, he hadn't touched a piano in years. Ibrahim Ferrer, who really became the best-known face of the Buena Vista Social Club - his career had really peaked, I think, in the late 1950s. And he retired from music altogether before Buena Vista Social Club brought him his biggest success. And Omara Portuondo, the only female artist in the group, she just happened to be around the studio at the time. She popped her head in the door and was kind of pulled into the production and was well known as a Bolero and Cuban jazz singer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VEINTE ANOS")

BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTIN: Were they just having a good time - they were just in it for kicks? Or did they suspect that they were doing something that would have such staying power?

CANTOR-NAVAS: Well, I think no one was thinking about even the possibility that this was going to be such a huge commercial success, and I don't think that anyone could have imagined the impact that the album had and that it had for the individual artists, that it also had for Cuban music and how it would even, like, influence tourism in Cuba, for example.

MARTIN: Beyond the music, I think part of the appeal of this group has to do with the story, as you noted. But I understand there has been some pushback against the narrative in recent years, right?

CANTOR-NAVAS: Well, I think as time went on, as it became more popular, there was this idea that, you know, Ry Cooder had, like, rescued these musicians from obscurity. Some people in Cuba, they saw, like, kind of even an imperialist tinge to the whole affair that they were not happy about. And it was true that these musicians were mostly forgotten at the time. But it's also important, 25 years on, to really recognize the merits of these talents who were in the studio. And so in this new 25th anniversary reissue, there are new liner notes by Rosa Marquetti, who's a Cuban writer and music historian. They just bring a new perspective, maybe a legitimacy to, really, who these musicians were.

MARTIN: So there is this 25th anniversary reissue of the album. It's filled with all kinds of unreleased tracks. Do you want to pick one of the new songs to go out on?

CANTOR-NAVAS: Yeah, there's one called "A Tus Pies," just like at your feet, written by Compay Segundo. It's a nice example of that whole improvisational feel that the album has and the simplicity that really made the album so beloved to begin with.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A TUS PIES")

BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB: (Singing in Spanish).

MARTIN: I love it. What a gift. Judy Cantor-Navas is a music journalist in Barcelona. She was also nominated for a Grammy for her liner notes for the album "The Complete Cuban Jam Sessions." Judy, thank you so much. We so appreciate it.

CANTOR-NAVAS: Thank you. Always a pleasure.

MARTIN: We spoke to her about the 25th anniversary of the "Buena Vista Social Club." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.