‘Buena Vista Social Club’ at 25: Memories of Memories

There was also something about the sonics of “Buena Vista Social Club.” It was recorded in Havana’s venerable Egrem studio in real time, on analog tape on a rickety recorder (which needed repairs on the first day of sessions), and without fancy post-processing, all of which also gave the music an extra patina. In 1996, you’d never get that piano sound in a studio in Los Angeles.

So in some ways, there was a sense that the album was a time capsule. But it wasn’t, exactly; if you wanted a time capsule, you could easily listen to actual vintage recordings. “Buena Vista Social Club” was also self-consciously retro. As elegant as the musicianship was, the singers’ voices were weathered with age, and they were crooning about romances from decades past. No one was pretending that the years hadn’t gone by; part of the appeal was that the performers and songs had mellowed with age. The reissue includes some alternate takes of songs, and to me, it sounds like the original choices were the more relaxed, cozier ones.

GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO Jon, I have a different memory that feels like a nice counterpoint to yours. I was in South Africa at the Cape Town Jazz Festival, a good 15 years after your visit to Cuba. One of the featured performers, on the largest of five stages, was the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club. It had some “old guys,” of course, but also younger musicians who had come into the band well after its founding in 1996, as it continued to tour — a sign of the strength of the Buena Vista Social Club brand of nostalgia, but also of Cuban music. They commanded the audience. But a lot of what they played didn’t sound like what was on the original album; it felt like a decidedly broader, and more decidedly danceable, sampling of traditional Cuban music.

On “Buena Vista Social Club,” the tempos are slower and the horns far scarcer; it’s guitars and voices mostly, the sound of musicians throwing something together in a Havana courtyard or around a kitchen table. So to your point, Jon, about this record not exactly being a perfect time capsule, it sounds a bit like these musicians remembering these songs (a number of which are decades-old originals by the group’s members). That’s why it’s so rewarding to watch the documentary: You can see these musicians, as they perform, bask in what these songs represent to them.

Isabelia, to your point, I do think American audiences can often be guilty of thinking about listening to “world music” as an attempt to pin down or understand the music of a foreign place, which leads to an impulse to freeze things, and ends up in the kind of nostalgia you alluded to. I can never help thinking of “Buena Vista Social Club” in a lineage that runs through Alan Lomax and David Attenborough — of recordings that propose, dubiously, to provide a keyhole view into an entire musical culture — as much as I think of it as a “Cuban” record.