Featured Buena Vista Social Club Artists

Ibrahim Ferrer

The son and bolero master vocalist had a fabled entrance into this world: he was born in Santiago in 1927 at a social club dance. He began his career in the early 1940s with local musical outfits in  Santiago. Like most musicians, he had a succession of “day gigs” to make ends meet, jamming by night. In the 50s, he was the lead vocalist for bandleader Pacho Alonso, and also sang for the legendary Beny Moré. At the time of the Buena Vista sessions, Ferrer was living in a decaying apartment in Old Havana; like many of the Buena Vista elders, Ferrer was in semi-retirement, occasionally shining shoes for money. Juan de Marcos González found him taking his daily stroll on the streets of Havana—and the rest is, as they say, history. 

Juan de Marcos González

One of the driving forces behind the Buena Vista Social Club was Juan de Marcos González. Younger than the bulk of the Buena Vista musical family (born in 1954), he nevertheless has a direct lineage to the greatness of the golden era rendered in the film and on the various Buena Vista albums: his father was a vocalist who performed with Arsenio Rodríguez, the legendary band leader The González family lived in the Pueblo Nuevo barrio of Havana, an eminently musical neighborhood- the likes of Chano Pozo, who achieved fame with Dizzy Gillespie's big band in the 40's, and other legends grew up there. 

Originally fascinated by American and British rock-forms frowned upon by the Castro regime-he did an about face and established a seminal "traditional" Cuban band, Sierra Maestra, in 1978.Sierra Maestra followed in the footsteps of the septetos of yore. González's stated goal was to keep the torch of great Cuban folk music alive for a younger generation. And alive he kept it. Sierra Maestra has recorded fourteen albums in Cuba, and toured internationally.  

González's contribution to Buena Vista Social Club cannot be overstated. While Nick Gold and Ry Cooder arrived in Havana focused on a West African-Cuban guitar-based collaboration, González was gearing up for what he initially conceived as an "all star" album tribute to the golden era greats of Cuban music, the Afro-Cuban All Stars, featuring many of the same musicians who comprise the Buena Vista Social Club. Subsequently, González led the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Rubén González on their European and American tours, and directed the Buena Vista Social Club concerts in Amsterdam and at Carnegie Hall. 

Rubén González

Over his more than five decades in music, Rubén González has played with many of the great ones (including stints with Mongo Santamaría and Arsenio Rodríguez) and is himself a legend, universally regarded as one of the pioneers of Afro-Cuban piano style. In his youth, he attended medical school, thinking that he’d be a doctor by day and a musician at night, but he left school for his first love, the piano. In the forties and fifties, he was one of a trio of virtuoso pianists (with Luis ‘Lili’ Martínez and Percuchín) who helped lay the foundation for the mambo by marrying African rhythms with the freedom of American jazz improvisation. In the 1960s, González joined Enrique Jorrín (the creator of the cha-cha-cha), performing with the legendary bandleader until Jorrín’s death in the mid-80s, and ‘retired’ shortly thereafter. He led a quiet life in Havana until Buena Vista producer Juan de Marcos González dragged him down to EGREM Studios for the now-legendary recording sessions.  

Pio Leyva

Pio Leyva composed some of Cuba’s best known standards and is one of the island’s most colorful personalities, known everywhere as ‘El Montunero de Cuba.’ He won a bongo contest at the age of six and made his singing debut in 1932. With his deep, country voice, he has recorded over 25 albums since he signed his first contract with RCA Victor in 1950 and is known as one of the great improvisers. Pio has sung with the bands of great Benny More, Bebo Valdez and Noro Morales and for a time was a member of ‘Compay Segundo y Sus Muchachos.’ 

In 1953, he was recording with Compay Segundo in Havana on the day of the revolutionary attack on the presidential palace. He swears the sound of gunshots can be heard on the album. In 1991, at the youthful age of 74, Pio undertook a highly successful four month tour of West Africa where he has a dedicated following.

Manuel "Puntillita" Licea 

‘Puntillita’ began singing at the age of seven and joined the ‘Orchestra Liceo’ in 1941. He went on to achieve huge popularity in the 1950’s as lead singer with some of Havana’s greatest bands including: Adolfo Guzman, Roberto Faz and Cascarito. He also sang with the legendary Sonara Matancera, with whom Celia Cruz once sang and which had been existence for almost 70 years. ‘Puntillita’ recorded the hit “The Rooster, the Hen and the Horse,” with the group. His polished vocal style has touched on the whole gamut of Cuban rhythms, but he specializes in the son and bolero. 

Orlando "Cachaito" López 

The López family is a veritable musical dynasty whose specialty is the bass—any kind of bass, upright or acoustic, classical or pop or jazz. Cachaito’s father and uncle, Orestes and Israel (a.k.a. Cachaito, who earned international fame with a couple of amazing recordings in the early 90s), learned their craft from their father, don Pedro. Orestes went on to assist Arsenio Rodríguez in the development of the mambo; Israel is credited with helping establish the descarga style, a kind of Afro-Cuban jazz jam. Cachaito himself has had an amazingly versatile career. At one point, he was a classical player with the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional and moonlighted, with an electric bass, as an Afro-Cuban session man. In the 1960s, he was a key member of Irakere, a foundational Cuban experimental band that combined pop, classical, Cuban folk, African and jazz influences. 

Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal

A trumpet player who learned at his father’s knee, Mirabal began playing professionally in 1951. He joined the jazz band ‘Swing Casino’ on 1953 before forming the ‘Conjunto Rumbavana’ three years later. In 1960, he joined the ‘Orquesta Riverside,’ whose singer Toto Gomez gave him his nickname ‘Guajiro’ Mirabal. There followed spells with ‘Orquesta del Cabaret Tropicana,’ directed by Armando Ramer, the ‘Orquesta del ICRT,’ the official orchestra of Cuban state radio and television. He had also toured with Oscar de Leon and Jose Feliciano. 

Eliades Ochoa

Like many musical greats, guitarist and vocalist Eliades Ochoa began playing at a tender age—six years old. He was raised in a musical family in Santiago. By his early teens, he was playing the Cuban equivalent of the “underground” circuit, local bars and brothels. In 1978 he took over the helm of Cuarteto Patria, a group that has kept the Cuban folk tradition alive since 1940; under Ochoa’s direction, the band toured internationally. Like Compay Segundo, Ochoa created his own brand of guitar to match his playing style. Ochoa’s trademark cowboy hat is a tribute to his provincial roots. 

Omara Portuondo

Omara Portuondo's family history is a romantic New World saga. Her mother was born into a rich Spanish family and was expected to marry within her social caste, but instead eloped with a Cuban baseball player—a black man. Omara began her show business career as a dancer at the fabled Tropicana in Havana. With her sister Haydeé and others, she formed a female vocal quartet, Cuarteto Las D’Aida in the early 50s, a group that achieved widespread acclaim and remained together for fifteen years. Omara loved both American jazz (early in her career, she worked with Nat King Cole) and the romantic legacy of Cuban music—coming to be known as the “fianceé of feeling.” 

While her sister went into exile in the U.S., Omara remained in Cuba, lending her vocal talents to numerous bands, as well as cutting several albums. Ry Cooder met her in Havana before the sessions for Buena Vista, and the following year, during the legendary sessions, Omara happened to be recording at EGREM Studios at the same time. Cooder immediately enlisted her for the project, setting up her memorable collaborations with Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo. Because of the success of the Buena Vista projects, Portuondo has had a hectic, international touring schedule, but she also continues to perform at her favorite spots in Havana. 

Compay Segundo  

The elder statesman of Afro-Cuban music, Compay Segundo (born Francisco Repilado) lived most of the 20th century and is charging into the 21st at 90 years young. His nickname comes from the Cuban slang for “compadre” and his sweet “second voice,” or bass harmony vocals. Segundo was born in Siboney and raised in Santiago, Cuba’s eastern provincial capital and the birthplace of Cuban son. In his formative years, he made a living by working in the tobacco fields and by cutting hair; at night, he’d hang at the local hotspots. At the age of fifteen he composed his first song, “Yo bengo aquí” and was already an accomplished guitar and tres player. He was also an excellent clarinetist, and invented his own instrument, the armónico, a seven-string hybrid between a guitar and a tres.. In the 20s and 30s, he played with some of the best bands of the era, including Nico Saquitos Quintero’s Cuban Stars, the Municipal Band of Havana, Justa García’s Cuarteto Hatuey and Conjunto Matamoros. In the 40s, Segundo gained fame as one half of the Los Compadres duo with Lorenzo Hierrezuelo. In the 50s, he formed Compay Segundo and his Muchachos, a group that plays to this very day. Compay Segundo is the very embodiment of the combination of innovation and tradition that is at the heart of modern Cuban music.  

Barbarito Torres

One of the many unforgettable musical moments on The Buena Vista Social Club album is “Barbarito” Torres’ laúd solo on “El Cuarto de Tula.” The laúd is a 12-string instrument of the lute family, emitting, especially on its high register, a piercing, metallic tone that is perfect for fast, single-note improvising. Torres approaches his solos with a perfect balance of precision and passion. On “El Cuarto de Tula,” a song about a fire destroying a woman named Tula’s house (and that serves as an extended double-entendre for sexual passion), he attacks the laúd so fiercely that Eliades Ochoa is prompted to exclaim on the recording, “¡Se volvió loco Barbarito!” (Barbarito has gone mad!). Torres has played with most of the legends of Cuban music, as well as international stars like Venezuela’s Oscar de León.

Amadito Valdés

Valdés has studied at the Havana Conservatoire and with maestros Guillermo Barreto and Alfredo de los Reyes. He is the creator of a unique style of improvising on the timbales, which mixes Afro rhythms in 6/8 with the son syncopated rhythms in 2/4. Valdés has worked with all the most important Cuban big bands since the 70s and recorded countless albums with artists of the stature of Las D'Aida, Paquito d' Rivera, Emiliano Salvador, Bebo Valdés, Las Estrellas de Areito and Peruchin. SInce 1997 he has worked with the Afro-Cuban All Stars, the Ruben González group and Buena Vista Social Club.

Joachim Cooder

Joachim Cooder was born in 1978 in Santa Monica, California. Inspired by drummer Jim Keltner, he began playing the drum set at the age of five. Since then he has participated in live performances and film scores (often with his father Ry), and numerous recordings, notably Buena Vista Social Club in 1996 and BVSC presents Ibrahim Ferrer in 1998. Joachim studied world percussion at California Institute of the Arts where he formed "RadioBemba," now a full time band featuring classic and original Latin music. Their first record "En Frequencia" will be released on Perro Verde records.

Nick Gold / World Circuit

In the mid-80s,Buena Vista Social Club producer Nick Gold ran World Circuit Records out of his bedroom at his parents’ house. Recording and distributing world music before it became World Music, the tiny label was a classic “indie” endeavor, selling a few thousand units of each release. At the dawn of the new millennium, Gold is now a legend on the scene, and the records that he produces sell millions on a global scale. Buena Vista albums have topped the charts everywhere from Germany to Japan, and in his native England, the artists are treated like royalty when they arrive for concert dates.

In Gold’s youth, his father, a TV producer, would enjoy Sunday mornings by spinning classical and jazz records. The young Gold would wince at the classical stuff, but was enthralled by the sounds of vintage Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Lester Young. He studied African history at Sussex University, but the constraints of academia sent him fleeing, initially, into the British non-profit arts scene, helping produce tours of world artists in the U.K.

World Circuit first made its mark when Gold produced Ali Farka Touré’s first album outside Mali. The album received considerable attention and sold well, and also set the stage for 1994’s Talking Timbuktu, the legendary Touré-Ry Cooder collaboration that earned a Grammy in 1995. Cooder and Gold shared an abiding interest in Afro-Cuban music and traveled to the island in 1996 for the EGREM sessions that gave World Music its most successful album ever, The Buena Vista Social Club. Among current plans are to help preserve Havana’s EGREM studios and assist with musical education programs in Cuba and Mali.  



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Musical artists appear courtesy of World Circuit/Nonesuch Records.
Film Images appear courtesy of Road Movies.