When you went into the studio to record the “Buena Vista Social
Club,” what were your expectations given the
circumstances were that Nick Gold was trying to record
some “Oriental” style songs with Africans from Mali.
His thinking was that the sub-Saharan Africans who played
guitar the Ali Farka Touré style had been part of an
historical loop between Cuba and that part of Africa. A
lot of the actual black American players had come from
“High-Life” and 1950s Cuban music had interacted and
had turned into something that both sides of the Atlantic
were doing virtually the same way, with the exception of
the clave - which the Africans don’t use -- and
certain chord changes that the Africans don’t use. You
can hear this. There’s a great example of rumba by Celia
Cruz that was turned into an African tune. It’s just one
of the greatest things I’ve ever heard. It’s (rumba)
straightened out so it isn’t as clave-inflected but it
has the same charts, the same horn line and even different
thought this would be a good thing to explore since it was
somehow historically basic and hadn’t quite been looked
at or done. He wanted to do it. He was enthusiastic and
called me about it. I said, “Good God, yes. Now is the
time, the opportunity is here.”
went down there and when he picked me up at the airport he
told me the Africans hadn’t shown up. They hadn’t made
it, and we never found out why until years later.
what do we do?” he asked. “What should we do, what
would you like to do?”
And I said, “I’d like to something. We’re
here. Let’s dig it and pick up on it. You have the
studio. Which musicians do you have?”
said, “We’ve got Orlando ‘Cachaíto’ López. We
have Juan de Marcos. He’s been working on this
Afro-Cuban All-Star record, so we have him and his
brothers and some of these percussion guys.” And we had
Rubén González, who had been found -- he was presumed
dead in the beginning, and said to be so arthritic that he
couldn’t play. But he was found and he was playing.
Thank God it wasn’t true. So we had enough of a group to
Ochoa had been the first call for this African recording
because of Cuarteto Patria and the Oriental style. So he
would be there, but it would no longer be quite the
country song record idea because we didn’t have that
focus. We could have anybody.
I said we’d better get Compay Segundo. So they made a
call and he was in the country somewhere. I said, we'll
get who we can.
we arrived at the first day of recording. I don’t think
we even recorded anything, but it was to say “Hello”
and to look at who was going to be there. We walked in and
saw Manuel ‘Puntillita’ Licea and Orlando López.
Everybody was standing around wondering what was going to
happen. They were wondering what it was we were up to.
It’s not like we had a program or some piece of paper
with a script. We couldn’t say to anybody, “This is
exactly what we want to do.” What we wanted to do is
make some music, record some songs.
had brought CDs and had some tunes in mind. Generally,
they were taken from the middle period. Not as far back as
(Miguel) Matamoros’ style or with the country style, and
not as far forward as, say, Orquestra Aragón where it’s
more organized and more orchestral. But something in the
middle, which turns out to be what Compay and Arsenio Rodríguez
had been doing in the ‘50s. The ‘50s was the golden
age of music all over the world for some crazy,
X-File-like reason I can’t quite understand.
you want to look at the perfecting of a folk form,
that’s exactly what Arsenio did -- the perfecting of a
folk form, raising it to an artistic level from the simple
folk level but still within the folk form. Taking him as a
model and some of Compay’s ensemble records from the
‘50s as model, I asked, “Can we do this?”
very hard to jump-start a musical scene that is dead. If
that music has been put to rest in a culture, you can’t
get it back no matter what you do. Those people were
sufficiently vigorous and alive to try to do it, even
though this music is, like the music of Arsenio, not
practiced anymore. Félix Chappotin is not actually done;
no one actually does that in Cuba that I know of. I’ve
seen a couple of bands who try but this is not a daily
sound that lives in the air down there, any more than the
blues of Howlin’ Wolf lives in Chicago. It just
doesn’t. Other things develop, and that’s fine.
we were saying to these guys, “Let’s all get into it
like you used to. Let’s try to get this blend going and
a group thing going.”
course, they're very good at being members of a group even
though a group never existed before. Compay and Rubén
González had never been in the same room, probably on the
same block. Stylistically,
this was pretty clearly defined. If you were Rubén González
you were in cha-cha-cha bands with Enrique Jorrín,
playing cha-cha-cha rhythms and chord progressions like he
did. If you're Compay, you're doing the old song period,
not cha-cha-cha music. He doesn’t do that. I guess I
could have, but he wouldn’t have.
And Eliades would never have worked with Rubén or
probably Manuel Licea, for instance, who’s a nightclub
not to say they haven’t sprung from the same tradition,
the same way of life. They share more than they don’t
share, but it had just never happened before. I thought
this was the way to get around the problem of what to do
with classic music. How do you do something when the
records prove that it’s already been done, the great
records already made?
what do we do now? Well,
we have some of the components, we have everyone in the
studio. Many of these records – Estrellas de Areíto is
one of the highest statements of them -- have been made
there; the tapes are in the vault. We have the humans who
still live and can play, and we have this endless
repertoire of beautiful songs as a resource. So, we have
many good components, it ought to be possible.
I had learned from past experience that the way you have
to go into a project like this is to get people out of
their habitual ways of thinking. You’re not just going
to do the automatic Compay record and the automatic
cha-cha-cha record and run through the material yet again,
because there are stacks of records like that. If you read
your catalog, you’ll find lots of them. Somehow this had
to turn into something that hopefully would give everybody
a -fresh spontaneity so they wouldn’t just go
chapter-and-verse on us. Everybody tends to do that; I do,
we all do it. But we always have to try to beat that.
without saying to anybody we’re going to do something
different or handle this differently, as it develops in
the beginning we just try to very slowly reshape things in
instance, if they're used to having congas on a particular
section, heavy congas, let’s take them out. Let’s see
if we can swing it in a different way. If they're used to
a horn section on a tune we'll just have a trumpet and let
the coro be more pronounced rather than use trumpets. That
was the idea. But,
finally, it has to be said that what got recorded is
whatever got recorded. I didn’t do too much directing.
What I would say is, “Stop talking and let’s play. You
guys like to talk and you like to discuss and argue, but
we’d better keep this going if we can. Let’s see if we
can get a sound momentum.”
sound has to be built up in the room to a certain extent.
It’s like putting gas in a tank; you’ve got to fill
it. You don’t want to have too much talk because talk
takes the vibe away from the playing. But these guys had
to get acquainted a bit, even though they were all known
so well to each other.
I found that Compay seemed to know a lot about songs.
He’s so encyclopedic. He knows better songs than I know.
I would say, “Listen, I like this song.”
He would say, “Incorrecto. That song is proper
but I know a much better one. If you like that one there,
you will like this one.
It is more correct and more advantageous than this
other song.” So
I said, “Of course that’s right,” and got him to
start thinking about things.
the elements began to fall into place. If you have talent
like this it is … well, I’m not going to say it’s
easy, but it is not a struggle. Just let people begin to
express themselves. Of course, they were very enthusiastic
anyway once they heard the playback. The playback tells
the musicians a lot. It tells them that we’re trying to
get the sound that enlarges the music and lets the music
speak. They heard this good, big ambient playback and they
got happy. That was important, I think.
story behind the name
name of the group ended up being a wonderful sort of
‘40s and ‘50s club, a members-only club.
Tell us about this. It is such a sweet story. I
really love it.
Cooder: Of course. Rubén wanted to play. We would start
around 11a.m., but Rubén would come in every day around 9
and sit down at the piano and just wail. I figured I
should run a little DAT tape while he was practicing and
warming up. So I’d go in earlier and we’d turn this
thing on because we could never get him to stop, and he
didn’t want to. And I’d say, “Wait a minute.
What’s that thing you just played?”
one?” he goes. “I just played 10 songs. I don’t
was number eight. Well, forget it.”
we ran the DAT and went back and I checked and said,
“Here’s a good one. What’s this one?”
the ‘Buena Vista Social Club.’ It’s a song written
by Cachaíto’s father, Orestes López. It is the mascot
tune of the Buena Vista Social Club.” What club is that,
I asked? “It
was social club where musicians used to hang out.”
in Cuba and in the Caribbean including New Orleans, as far
as I know, was organized around these fraternal social
clubs. There were clubs of cigar wrappers, clubs for
baseball players and they’d play sports and cards --
whatever it is they did in their club -- and they had
mascots, like dogs. At the Buena Vista Social Club,
musicians went there to hang out with each other, like
they used to do at musicians’ unions in the U.S., and
they’d have dances and activities.
Vista Social Club” is a great song and a difficult tune
to play. It was a bit artful and a bit outside the norm
and also special to this little group. We recorded it and
then Nick Gold thought we should call the record this
name. It should be the thing that sets it apart. It was a
kind of club by then. We’d been in there seven weeks and
were recording; everybody was hanging out and we had rum
and coffee around 2 in the afternoon. It felt like a club,
so let’s call it that. That’s what gave it a handle.
we went looking for the club -- as you see in the film --
and, well it wasn’t there any more and nobody could
agree on where it had been in the first place. It was
here, it was there. Buena Vista used to be a neighborhood
up on a hillside above the town where there were nice
breezes and it was cool and pleasant. It was quite
beautiful. I don’t have any idea where it was, but
everybody swears they know.
“Buena Vista Social Club” has had such a wonderful
impact in the music industry especially in this area of
so-called world music -- all music from all over except
the U.S., I guess. As an artist who’s been around for a
long time, recording with such greats as Gabby Pahinui,
and with your collaboration with the giant of Mali Ali
Farka Touré, and with Flaco Jimenéz, you've always been
around these larger-than-life musicians. You say in the
liner notes this has been like you’ve studied all your
life to get to this point. How do you see the success of
Buena Vista as a whole? Four years or what is it? Four or
years since you started.
course it’s wonderful to see this because I like music
for personal reasons. I always feel that if it’s great,
if we admire it and enjoy it, other people will like it
too. In the old times, back when I used to make records, I
used to think about this. I thought I’d try with Flaco,
for instance, a Tex-Mex idea that I had. In those days
accordions were not so popular. I had some gospel or
R&B singing grafted onto to it and I thought this
would be great. Everybody looked at me like was crazy.
can’t do that,” Randy Newman said to me one day. He
said, “Warner Bros. is going to hate this. This
accordion thing, what are you doing?”
Then we’d go out and do these shows -- this was
in the ‘70s, it was date night -- and couples in the
audience looked up and were just blank-faced. I thought
I’d guessed wrong again.
don’t really think I guessed wrong. I think I was right.
So, we kept trying. Finally, with Buena Vista,
something worked. With hindsight it looks to me now as if
the audience got there for this sound and this idea, this
story. And, of course, the music is the highest quality.
This is the greatest.
you talk about what’s around today in 2000 and what we
have to listen to, old records are great. But everybody
wants to believe that somehow they’re part of a living
scene, that they’re in on it somehow. No one wants to
think it’s all died and gone to heaven. Nobody wants to
think that, it’s just too depressing. So it looks to me
that the audience got there, wherever they were and
whoever they may be.
think it’s got something to do with everybody listening
to music a lot now. There are a lot of ways people hear
music. These have increased thanks to records and radio,
and that’s all positive and good. Then along this
project comes, and of course we had media interest.
have to have that because you can’t be ignored by the
media or no one will ever hear your record. Fifty thousand
SOM records a year are released. That’s a figure I’ve
heard quoted. So what is the poor consumer supposed to do?
They hear something, they perhaps try it. Or they don’t
hear all the other records that they love. What do you do
for them? How
does this work?
got very lucky with our media interest, and the world
interest in Cuba all played a part. It was important. For
me, I feel like finally we got there. This sound, this
vibe and the level of artistry here is so compelling and
it is so rich and mysterious. These are great qualities,
not necessarily the typical qualities of records that are
popular. These musicians are 90 years old, 80 years old
playing obscure songs in Spanish. That’s somewhat
kind of antique ambient sound is something you would have
expected to become so popular. Never.
say, “Oh you knew this was going to happen,” and I
say, “Are you kidding me?”
Find me one reason why this would have been
popular; there’s no logic. It’s just that it’s
great, and everybody picked up on it.
the story. The film helped a lot, of course, because you
have to demonstrate what the story is. Then people can
say, “Oh, I see.” We don’t see musicians, we
generally don’t know the lives of musicians. We don’t
know who makes these records. You take a record home but
you don’t know what you have there. You have some pretty
tunes, but you don’t ever know too much about what goes
on behind it, the kind of lives that are lead, what people
think and feel. The film demonstrated who these people
really are and you draw closer to them and you become
interested in them.
Ibrahim Ferrer walks out on stage now, there’s a roar
from the crowd because they feel they know him, and they
feel that they’re close to him in some way. It’s an
emotional idea they have, which is what a great star
really used to be -- someone people identified with, like
Nat Cole and similar persons.
had no expectations, except Nick Gold, I have to say. He
seemed to know. We got it done, took it home and listened
to it, and Nick said, “We’ve got something here.
This is going to work, this is going to be
always skeptical. So I said, “You know, it'll just be
one of these nice things and 4,000, 5,000 or 10,000 people
will buy it.” But he was right, of course, and it took
off in Europe, which was where it was released first. When
the Europeans went mad for it then I thought ah, it may
work. But how do you sell Latin music in this country?
This is not Latin pop, it’s not rock. What do you do
with it? How
do you get it into the mechanism of musical commerce?
seemed to just permeate. It didn’t go down any of the
typical roads of promotion. It just got there on its own,
with the help of the media. Without media help, you
can’t do anything.
the media became interested in this record is pretty
unusual, but there was a story to tell and there was
suddenly this explosion of interest in Cuba and that had a
lot to do with it.
occurred to me that the record -- this whole trilogy,
including the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Rubén Gonzalez’
CD now, we have quintet, I guess -- we have five CDs that
have done what politicians haven’t been able to do.
yeah. If you’re taught to hate and fear a people or a
country and it works, it’s because or your ignorance of
that country. You have no contact with it, nor do you know
what you're hating and fearing. Then you have to say,
after listening to this music, who is it you are afraid
of? Are you afraid of Rubén? He frightens you? He’s a
threat to you? Come on!
people have such a gift for everybody that it is
unmistakable. Listen to one note and there’s so much to
offer. Of course, this is what politicians are incapable
of doing. What do they do? They sit around and figure out
how to make deals, how to get Coca Cola down there, how to
get the money out. It’s a mess, it’s a snarly mess.
What the music can do is cut through that in an instant
because you receive this music, you feel it. You don’t
think about it. You
don’t use your head, you just use your whole self. You
hear it and you feel it and you say, I feel good. That’s
what everybody tells me.
get up in the morning, I put on Buena Vista or whichever
of these records, and I feel really great. I feel buoyant
and encouraged and it brightens the corner of the day.
That’s what music is supposed to do. It’s not supposed
to scare you or hurt you or upset you in some crazy way.
It’s supposed to make you feel encouraged and connected
to something. That’s what these Cubans are really good
at doing with their music; they’ve done it for
themselves as a country for a very long time in a very
artful, highly crafted way.
is a hell of a deal here. Many people love Oriental music
or Indian music because it has these components in it. In
an entirely different way of course, Buena Vista is
designed to do that as well -- to do something nice for
you. This is a very positive thing.
took the “Buena Vista Social Club” to the United
Nations, and did a lunch concert in the Security Council
room, not the big room but the next one down. We had all
these career diplomats on their lunch hour running in with
their brief cases and their families trying to get a seat.
I was sitting there with a fever of expectation and had
made a stage and rented some instruments. It was the day
of the evening show so they had about an hour to do it and
just started in. The people went nuts.
boy, I tell you there was not a dry eye in the place. We
knew these career diplomats at the U.N. have another kind
of hearing because they're there for a reason. We later
heard from individuals who came forward and said,
“We’ve worked all day every day trying to make things
better in the world.” My God, they're not there trying
to move up the ladder to the next fancy job. These are
spoke to people from Ghana, I spoke to people from Mexico,
I spoke to a South African diplomat and this meant a lot
to them. This was great. It made them feel like they had
gotten something back from their work. It’s thankless,
tough work at the U.N. Can you imagine the stuff they have
to wade through and deal with daily?
show was interesting. For our musicians it was great
because they felt involved. As Cubans, they have to think
about this. It’s a very, very politicized country after
all. They have to think about stuff like this all the time
-- what their lives consist of in terms of hardships and
the embargo and the future, let alone the past; for some
of these older people, the past has been rocky road.
about the second project, “Buena Vista Social Club
Presents Ibrahim Ferrer.” This really helped to cement Buena Vista as a whole, as a larger
project. Then put the spotlight on one wonderful artist of
the club, of the group, an unsung artist, if you will, of
the golden age of Cuban music in the 50’s.
Ferrer was my first choice to make a record following
Buena Vista because we could see what we had with this
voices everything here as far as I’m concerned. You can
play as good as you want but you have to be able to sing.
This music is vocal and the secret to communicating this
is in singing. What we don’t see or hear too much of
anymore is this bolero quality, this gauzy kind of
transparent inward voice that he has, because that’s the
kind of guy he is. He’s an inward man, he’s not a
showman like Compay. He’s not an actor so much, he’s
just a zenned-out character.
one part of the reason he did not succeed at all as a
musician in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He was not a very overt
character. In this age they were starting to discover that
the singer, the individual performer, was going to be the
focus for success. For instance, when Beny Moré came
along there had never been a star like that in Cuban music
or even perhaps in Latin music. He was on the level of
Elvis -- a heroic character and a beautiful looking guy.
Tremendously charismatic, it’s said, and quite a showman
in all of this and a great talent, of course. There was
nobody like him. Ibrahim Ferrer is nothing like that.
He’s -- I want say hidden -- but he’s quite an
introvert and lives in his head. You can see it in his
I saw him in the studio the first time, Juan de Marcos
brought him in because we had said, “Can’t somebody
sing Boleros? We have everything here but that. We need to
hear some ballads here.”
has turned into this kind of rapid fire for vibrato, a
nervous thing that I personally can’t stand. But this is
hard to find, more rare than the Sonero voice in Cuba or
in Latin America. Juan de Marcos came back a couple of
hours later with this obviously very poor Cuban. He’s a
little shabby looking with the face of an old blues
singer, with the eyes that are always dilated and a
stillness. When you see that you think to yourself, OK
we’ve got something here. What’s he do? Oh, he sings.
Oh, get him to the microphone, let’s see what happens.
opens his mouth and out comes Dos Gardenias and you
think, Oh-my-gosh! I’ve been waiting to hear this all my
life. Now we’ve got something. Now we can go.
a great lover of ballads. Personally, this is what I want
to hear. I love all the rhythms stuff; it’s fun its
kinetic, but in myself what I love is ballads and
can paint the picture for you. He can set it out. It’s
visual, it’s special. It’s amazing to hear a guy at
this age,70 odd years, with the top end of his voice
undiminished or unaffected. It is the first thing that
goes as you get older; your top end goes. What you need
for Bolero is the top end because all of the air is up
is down in your chest or in your nose somewhere.
It’s a power voice like Puntillita’s. You can
do that on into your life, like Compay, but to sing Bolero
you’ve got to have clarity, and it’s very rare in an
I got all excited and every day he would say, “Thank you
for the day.” He’d
say, “Do you want me to come back?”
“Yes, I insist on it.”
“Oh, OK. If
you say so.” “Yes,
I say so.” Every
day, until finally he began to get the hint that we wanted
to have him there. He was part of it. I said, “You're
here now. You’re with us now.” This began to sink in
had been so disappointed and so turned down in his life
that he just had no expectations whatsoever. Then of
course, it got more enjoyable for him and he relaxed a bit
and began to feel like he was part of something. It was
tremendous. All the songs he sings on Buena Vista where
you hear his harmony are just so beautiful. It’s an
evocation of feelings. It’s not enough just to sing the
notes or play the notes; you have to evoke a mood, a
feeling that the people had and have had in this music
that sets it apart from just uncles out on the porch.
records you have to go beyond the uncle thing. When
you’re sitting with uncle and he’s singing and
playing, it’s wonderful. But when we take the record
home, that’s a different experience. You have to have
something a little more essential come through and
that’s what Ibrahim’s voice carries -- this feeling of
essence -- all the time, whatever he sings.
the program became let’s make an album with Ibrahim and
let’s look at some of these ballads and let’s get the
horns in there and the strings in here. Oh, we’re going
to have a big time. And, it was so. I have never had so
much fun in all my life, to have Demetrio Muñiz work on
the horn charts and the strings charts. It started to
sound like Ravel some of the time.
was unbelievable to get in this room the Beny Moré
lineup, which is five saxophones, four trumpets, four
trombones and Beny’s conductor Generoso Jiménez who
brought the charts in for these things.
So there’s Beny Moré up in the corner with some
40-year-old charts. He passed them out and here came
“Como Fue” to just blow you off your chair.
is quite something, to know that it’s being done right
and he’s going to sing it properly and convey all that
it can and should convey, so that you don’t go home and
say, well that was fun but you can’t do Boleros anymore.
If it were just gone, it would have been tragic. But with
Ibrahim, everybody knows this now because they come to his
shows and they mob him and they yell for him and they know
that they’re hearing the real thing.
And there is nothing like the real thing. As rare
as it is now there’s still nothing like it. It’s
love that idea you told me a few weeks ago that he has
this liquid, chocolate-syrup voice …
out of the bottle. That’s the Bolero voice. Then there
was Alberto … what’s his name Vargas? From Mexico?
Vargas, excuse me. You would hate to think that it’s
gone and you can’t hear it anymore. Thank goodness for
these guys. I say this all the time because I get to do
this, right? We have been a part of this. Sit there and
listen. It’s an incredible experience.
the way, we just mixed “Buena Vista Social club” as a
five-point surround DVD. This means that you have three
speaker sources in front of you and two behind you so
that, effectively, when you listen you hear yourself in
the middle of it. This works perfectly for Buena Vista
because it is so ambient. It was basically recorded that
way. So there’s a new product that’s going to be
available in the fall. When you play it on your DVD
player, it’s just unbelievable. I love the stereo, but
everybody’s going to be very happy with the surround
sound. It’s quite good.
about some of the artists you brought on for this
recording as well as some of the people that you've really
appreciated like Los Zafiros, Manual Galbán and Omara
Portuondo. Talk about this incredible song they did
Zafiros was not typically Cuban, it wasn’t typically
anything. They were just a bunch of bad boys from the Cayo
Hueso neighborhood – low-riders we would have known them
as – vatos locos, and rough characters. So they
sing in this kind of low-rider-of-the-times style, which
is an American East Coast R&B mixed with Cuban. It’s
incredible. You would want something like this to exist.
had always imagined that there might be such a thing. I
had never known if it did exist. You could hear it
happening in the Spanish Harlem music from New York, and
you’d think, I bet somebody has done this. I bet somehow
there is some Cuban stuff that has this groove in it, and
these voices, the doo-wop harmonies. Of course, it turned
out that they had done it. But they had all died.
was a documentary floating around with the one remaining
musician before he died -- Chino, the one with the
beautiful lead voice, not the high one but the middle --
telling about the old times. In this documentary there’s
this black-and-white footage of a guitar player doing this
twangy stuff and I thought, “My God! The
Duane Eddy of Cuba.” It’s fun -- twanging,
playing the bass strings and the electric guitar. It’s
Gold was there on some trip and simply asked whatever
happened to Manuel Galbán, the guitar player. He was
lives over there, down that street.” So Nick goes down and he’s sitting there playing the guitar
but he didn’t have an amp anymore. His guitar was a
Fender Telecaster and he was a little bit nervous and
uncertain. He didn’t know if he could still do it.
we brought him in because we thought we could do a couple
of these Zafiros tunes. It’s not stylistically where
he’s at necessarily, but it would be fantastic to try
this because they’re great songs – “La Ultima Cita”
and the other one “Herido de Sombras”, which is an
incredible, beautiful song. So Galbán comes in and lays
it all out for everybody because he was Zafiros arranger.
We had him and Gema Cuatro, the girl quartet, sing the
vocal parts because we didn’t have Zafiros anymore. That
was quite a thrill.
we did the first tune, I just thought, Well this is just
pure heaven! Now we’re moving into this hidden element
of music from the ‘50s in Cuba that is a little less
about the typical kind of popular music or the tourist
music or the nightclub music. This is something in which
I’m more interested personally, the sub-forms that exist
that contain something extra, something strange and
unexpected. This is Galbán personified. He takes these
ripping solos and I have never heard a Telecaster sound
like that. He’s a fantastic guy and very much alive,
ready to do whatever it takes.
some point I said, “Just tell me where you got some of
this from. What were you listening to?”
It was Duane Eddy, which is sensational. Absolutely
sensational. I’ve played with Duane and I know him.
you look at the line of the surf guitar, the twanging
guitar and the electric trace guitar such as played by
Arsenio and Niño Rivera, there is some kind of weird,
post-bop -- watered-down bee-bop, popularized bee-bop --
cocktail vibe in that music. Of course, we would all give
body parts to hear the Zafiros again. Fortunately, they
recorded and it’s available. People who haven’t heard
that record certainly should. It’s very heavenly, very
Talk about Omara Portuondo. I think this is one of the
most amazing and touching moments in recording and in the
“Silencio” was the thing you wished and hoped for. You
may know tunes and study, and I have records, but the
inside, hidden true thing has to come from these people,
such as with Compay. If you mention a tune, he says it’s
a half-baked tune and he knows a really good tune. With
Ibrahim, he knows what he likes to sing. The more we
worked with him, the more I found that he was recalling
things he had liked, that he had done.
day he’s in the studio messing around -- you have to
allow for this improvisational time so that things can be
recalled and everybody can rest a bit and reflect on
things -- and he started doing “Silencio.” They
started to play it and I thought, Here we go, here’s the
tune is like a stairway. It steps up step by step and you
go up and up and up and up. It’s like a Hawaiian tune I
used to do with Gabby Pahinui. So we run out into the
studio saying, stop right here. Let’s check this out.
How do you this as a duet? What’s the best way to do
and Omara are very good together. Their singing is
complimentary because her voice has a certain lower mass
as a woman’s voice, and his voice has a certain lack of
mass, higher for a man. Where you might be used to hearing
the man in the melody and the woman in the harmony, they
can flip it around and it gives it a kind of unique
interested in vocal harmony because this is where things
really start to happen. Two people harmonizing produce one
sound. There’s a fusion of harmonics and timing and
thought. It is an incredible sound on record. It’s also
something we love, like the Everly Brothers. Why is that?
Two is better, I think. I’m a sucker for it on
record, I think it’s just fabulous.
he sings a verse, she sings a verse. We quickly mapped it
out and then they do it. It was A matter of getting a take
that contains that strange sort of floating quality, a
searching quality. You want the song to feel as though
you're coming upon it, and everybody -- the musicians and
the listeners -- needs to discover this at the same time.
If it’s too programmatic and sounds like they’ve done
it a hundred times already, the magic goes away.
4 in the afternoon the film crew arrives -- Wim Wenders
and eight people. Now, we’re filming. Let’s get the
lights, camera over here. I’m thinking, “You can’t
come in now, you can’t come in now. We’re about to get
this tune. We’ve worked all day and part of yesterday to
make it. Please stay out in the hallway, and don’t crash
your equipment and don’t make a lot of noise.”
a sensitive guy he says, “Sure. OK, we’re being quiet
here.” Then they came in and we did it again and they
filmed it, but we had to pray that we were going to get
that take. There’s no easy way to do this. The mood must
be there or the whole thing becomes a bit empty. There
were other good takes of it, maybe three or four other
good takes, but this one has the drama, the increasing
drama in each stage of it, each phrase. It’s a classic.
I’ve heard other versions of this song but I don’t
like them as much as this. This one’s got something.
you do this on stage people go from a happy laughing to
tears. I’ve seen it happen in an instant. Women
especially, they just start crying. Bang you’re on it!
“Silencio” woops. Everybody starts to cry. You
know they have got it. This is an important element in
this music. Everybody
gets to go away feeling like something happened to them.
it did to me, Ry. I heard this thing and I said, “My
God, where the hell am I? In heaven or nearby?”
, very near.
got to hear it from you, even though I’ve heard it
elsewhere, how this film came about. And what’s this
about you putting a CD of “Buena Vista” into Wim
Wenders’ bag? Or something like that?
It was in the early days when the record was just finished
and Nick Gold was starting to make them for the European
market before he had the deal to release it over here. I
was around Wim. He’s a collector of music and carries
music. He’s an itinerant, nomadic guy, always going
somewhere. He’s got a little bag full of CDs and tapes
he’s been collecting for years.
I said to him in passing, casually, We’ve just done this
thing, its interesting Cuban music. I don’t want say too
much but check it out and see what you think. It had
occurred to me that if we didn’t get this documented on
film -- the people and the place, the process of doing
this music that we had seen -- that we would be missing
the boat. I’ve been doing this a long time now, 35 odd
years, and I’ve seen it over and over again. The
experience I had in the company of musicians wherever they
are, is so much a part of the appreciation and the
enjoyment. The poor audience doesn’t get to go there.
They don’t get to sit on the beach with Gabby or in the
studio with Flaco, and they just don’t know what I know.
I’m sorry about that.
used to find when making my records and taking them home
it was very flat for me, very uninspiring. So I thought,
what’s missing? What’s the matter? Is it that I’m
just not getting there or is it something else? I
finally realized that no matter what I did, whether I made
a good record or a bad record or played well or had good
ideas or bad ideas, there was something about the
experience that wasn’t getting across. For me, I thought
it was vivid enough when I was recording with Gabby
Puahuni or Ali Farka Touré.
the old days, we didn’t think about filming these
sessions. We just wouldn’t have thought about it. Now
you do it, everybody does. People film every day of their
lives. They’ve turned it into product. So I thought,
somebody has to film this. We’ve done “Buena Vista,”
but now that we’re going to do Ibrahim, more things will
happen. There’s so much beauty down there, there’s so
much precious stuff and you always have a certain sense of
urgency because everybody’s getting older, the buildings
are falling down. There’s a moment here that’s going
to change -- it certainly did -- and drift into the modern
world. It will change life in Cuba and change what we see
every day. We had to get this on film because it would
make a lot of difference.
Wim was the logical choice. I know him and I work with him
and I thought he'll dig it, he’ll pick up on it. Then
the question was, does he have time? Can he do it? There
was some reason why he wasn’t going to start working
immediately on another project and he had a couple of
months available. So he said, “OK. We'll take our crew,
camera, sound recording gear, no big deal. All right
days later, we’re down there and of course he saw what I
had seen. He saw the place and he saw the localities and
the light and the people, and he went to work. What he
would do is take folks out during the day, when we we’re
recording but we didn’t need them, and take them
somewhere and fill in and talk to them. He got this rhythm
going. Then we took a look at his footage and realized
that he needs to go somewhere.
we took everybody to Amsterdam and did these two concerts
in a nice theater there. We got everybody together on
stage with not very much preparation. After all, a lot of
people had never done this as a stage show; we had made a
record, for crying out loud. Now we’re expecting it to
be a stage show! It was a bit hectic.
we took a look at the footage and said it is interesting
but it’s transitional. Now we need to bring it to some
closure point, some greater realization. What is that?
It’s Carnegie Hall, that’s what it is. Everybody knows
that. As I say in the film, I think everybody knows
Carnegie Hall is the place to end up. Symbolic. New York
is the destination for them because they wanted to go
knew. When are we going, they kept saying to me.
Are we going to Carnegie Hall? I want to go to
Carnegie Hall. I want to go to New York.
we had to take this on. It was a monumental task, to get
25 people out of Havana or from wherever they were -
Compay Segundo, for instance, was already on tour -- into
the United States through the State Department
bureaucracy, through the Immigration bureaucracy into New
York City, to get to Carnegie hall, film the thing, record
the thing. I’m sure I don’t need to go into the
details. It’s quite AN undertaking. It cost a fortune.
that time, Warner Bros. and Nonesuch Records were very
much into it because they had seen it was a great thing.
It was taking off, it was special, it was unique
and to play Carnegie Hall is even a greater thing. And it
was. It was a fantastic experience. It was cathartic.
were people on the sidewalk trying to buy tickets for
$2,000 and not able to get them. People went crazy. The
audience saw something they’d never seen: this moment of
arrival of people from a long time past, from another kind
of life. The film shows Ibrahim’s sudden realization of
where he is, what is happening. What a moment that is. The
concert was full of these realizations: we’ve arrived.
exactly what this felt like and that made it something
special. It wasn’t just another, how-do-you-like-me-now,
wink and nod and here’s my hit. This is what most people
see most of the time when they go to shows. They see a
programmatic thing with commerce behind it and style, and
that’s fine. I’m not being mean, but this was a little
different because there was a sense the audience had
gotten there and the musicians had gotten there and they
had met each other at Carnegie Hall. It also had other
implications, mostly of meeting and greeting and of a
sudden awareness something was in the air.
it went into the air and on film and onto the tape
machine. It was a great, very great thing. We lined all 20
people up on the sidewalk outside Carnegie Hall for the
shot of the foyer of the building -- a beautiful building
with the marquee showing “Buena Vista Social Club.”
Folks coming up the street on the way home from work
around 5 in the afternoon, would say, “Oh my God, is
this them? They’re here?”
It was not that well publicized, they sold the
tickets in an hour. TV cameras and people running over
damn near caused a riot out on the street in front
Carnegie Hall. Everybody was laughing and just carrying on
and having the greatest time.
beautiful moment everybody reflects on is Ibrahim and
Omara singing “Silencio” and dancing on stage.
Spontaneity like that was just responding and being
Cubans. The whole thing was incredible. Since than, I’ve
met people who were there and they speak about it like
they had seen an epiphany. You can’t get any better than
music, that’s doing your music and that’s why I always
say I feel like I’m paid up. I’ve been able to be part
of this scene, had a hand in it and it’s a great thing,
better than anybody’s expectations. Yet, hopefully
I’ll be able to do this some more and see this continue
to unfold. It’s been a lot of good for a lot of people.
Ry, this has also been sort of a family journey, right?
you want to say something? About the family thing, I mean.
was involved in the photography, which has now also influenced
That photograph went around the world, the one of Ibrahim
walking into the studio. It was a moment that this picture
wraps all up. It tells the entire story of the moment when
the person, Ibrahim, is unaware of what’s about to
happen. He doesn’t even see us. She took this picture
standing out in front, where the old Ford used to be, and
he’s walking, he’s coming. This was the second day,
when he had his cat clothes on instead of shoe-shine
clothes, and he’s walking into himself looking down and
thinking whatever he’s thinking, but as yet unaware,
unprepared. The whole street has this stillness to it. If
you go down there right now, today it doesn’t look like
have happened down there, not necessarily just because of
this record, but in a larger sense, things have happened.
Everybody’s a lot more aware, a lot more involved.
Modern times have come since we made this record, but at
that moment the photograph worked because it tells that
story. You can look at it and you know. You don’t have
to think too hard about it.
was there. She also shot video of the original sessions,
which are amazing to watch because you've got Compay
teaching me how to do things and telling me where I was
screwing up, and somebody takes the bass and says it
should go like this and the other guy says no it
shouldn’t. It’s great to see.
came and of course played a great part in it for me as a
percussionist because of his ability to compliment music
and give it a groove. He puts a certain emphasis in his
hand-drums that they don’t do. They were all interested
in that, and gathered around him to check him out on that
the heck it is. It’s Iranian stuff that he had learned
from an Iranian dumbek master. He absorbed and he learned
from them and was embraced by them. We all have, as a
family, and what can be greater than that?
has gone on to learn this music and incorporate in into
stuff that he’s interested in with his band and Radio
Bemba, and it’s paid off for him. This is what you
need to do as a young musician -- you need to sit with
masters and be able to be near them physically. It’s a
had that same experience as a kid to a certain extent,
just sitting near these people. You need to be physically
close to them while they do what they do because they
impart something to you that you can’t quantify, having
to do with tone production. But you have to become aware
of it otherwise your tone production will never include
this and you will always be, like, on the wrong side of
the glass and looking in, seeing something but saying,
where is this coming from? How is this being created; I
don’t understand it?
so much added to you as a person by this kind of contact.
But it has to happen at a young age. Joachim was 18 when
we did this record and I think back to when I was that age
and I started to hang around some blues players and some
hillbillies, and it made all the difference. You then have
a kind of understanding that makes you able to communicate
and to produce the essence that I’ve been talking about,
the thing that makes the music wonderful and makes it
can’t get it in a book, I’m sorry to say.
They don’t teach it in school. They can’t, very
well. They can tell you about it, but in order to do it
you have to feel it. In order to feel it you have to
absorb that feeling from another person. That’s my
little theory. It’s the old teacher/acolyte kind of
setup, where you sit with somebody doing whatever they do.
We would drink coffee, we’d go walk around, talk, smoke
cigars and in that process end up playing, which they like
to do, so they do it all the time. The process gives you
this thing, I’m happy to say.
the way, I always encourage people to go down to Cuba.
I’m not supposed to say this, but go and have a
good time, before it all either falls into the ocean or
gets replaced by a “City Walk” operation. Who knows
what’s going to happen down there? It’s hard to say.
as a family have had the greatest time we can have down
there and I truly hope we can go on doing this, somehow or
Music | The
Musicians | The
Gallery | The
Musical artists appear courtesy of World Circuit/Nonesuch
Film Images appear courtesy of Road Movies.