45. Buena Vista Social Club

Buena Vista Social ClubBuena Vista Social Club (1997)

How: I’d like to tell you that it is my Cuban heritage that drew me to Ry Cooder’s massive Cuban posterity project, that there was a breeze in me that pointed me in the direction of the cigarette and coffee filled haze that permeates throughout Buena Vista Social Club‘s historical album. I’d like to tell you that I was happy waving the flag and promoting the music of a national enemy, all while sipping a batido in a hammock and swaying in time to “De Camino a la Vereda.” I’d even like to tell you that I bought Buena Vista Social Club myself, but I can’t, because I was four years old when I first heard it, and the music would mean nothing to me for the next decade.

I pressed play again when I was fourteen, instantly transported into two separate worlds: the world I had only been told about in family stories, and the world I inhabited within my dad’s car, trying to sing “oigame compay/No deje el camino por cojer la vereda” correctly in my booster seat. My dad had other Cuban artists in heavy rotation: Cachao, Celia Cruz, Willie Chirino, por ejemplo, but nadie really compared to the skill, melancholy, and theatrics of the greatest collection of Caribbean musicians ever assembled. Imagine Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, and Miles Davis thrown into a recording studio for six months, surrounded by family, friends, stories, food, and the studio musicians of their choice, and whose only goal was to dick around and produce one hour of their favorite jazz. All egos aside, you’d have the Great American Album, a record so cherished it would be the score for life and death in every corner of this great nation. That album happened in Cuba, and it produced a joyful noise that can still be heard from speakers thousands of miles away from the island.

Why: I’d also like to tell you that this is the first of a few foreign language albums on the list, but unless you count some sporadic Haitian dialect and broken Spanglish, Buena Vista Social Club represents the only non-English album on the list. Despite my heritage, I can’t pretend I have listened to a bountiful canon of Latin American music, but I am confident that Buena Vista Social Club holds is weight against what I consider to be far superior English-language music.

The sexual repression and depression presented on the album’s opener “Chan Chan” doesn’t surprise me, but it might shock the average American with an understandable lack of island knowledge, especially when American knowledge of Cuban culture boils down to baseball, Dirty Dancing, and the final scene of Guys and Dolls. Cuba has a sordid history, one filled with incredible potential stifled by imperial powers capitalizing on weak immune systems, the Atlantic Slave Trade, and William Randolph Hearst. Despite their parasitic behavior, the Spanish and the Americans were never able to take sex away from the island, and as “Chan Chan” demonstrates, even the most respected Caribbean music fills the studio with sexual innuendo, because for centuries Latinos honestly had little else to celebrate. “Chan Chan” is one of the few original compositions on the album, and it’s also the best song the group has to offer.

The album boasts three other original compositions: the piano improvisation “Pueblo Nuevo,” by the legendary Ruben Gonzalez, the breezy “De Camino a la Vereda,” by the legendary singer Ibrahim Ferrer, and the heart-wrenching “Veinte Anos,” written and sung by Maria Teresa Vera, the only woman on the album. The other nine tracks are a mezcla of popular Cuban favorites, old trade secrets, and whatever Ry Cooder decided would be best to record. It’s not a collection of the island’s greatest hits (I’m almost sure “Guajira Guantanamera” was never ever considered to be recorded), but a sample of the country’s most important influences, hymnals, social club gossip, and pillow talk spanning nearly 150 years of musical heritage. There’s a song about a famous Cuban woman who burned her house down rather than allowing it to fall into Spanish hands during the first revolution of 1868 (“La Bayamesa,” which is now the Cuban national anthem). There’s a song inspired by American gospel and blues about innocent memories of puppy love (“Amor de Loca Juventud“). There’s also a song about how the town flirt Tula is so hot that her house burns down after having sex with firemen, and it’s fantastic.

As much as it pains me to say, Buena Vista Social Club wouldn’t be as successful if it weren’t for the “Latin Explosion” of the late 1990s. If it weren’t for Ricky Martin swinging his super gay hips on TRL, it’s very plausible this once-in-a-lifetime musical project wouldn’t have been recognized even by Latin Americans, much less Rolling Stone (who has this as one of two foreign language albums on their comprehensive but incredibly skewed list of the 500 greatest albums of all time). I’m not crediting “La Vida Loca” with providing Americans the reason to dance to “Candela,” but I am happy that Ry Cooder decided to release the album in 1997 instead of during the height of the grunge movement.

Special attention should be paid to “El Carretero,” the album’s only guajira (sometimes referred to as the Cuban blues). It engages the listener with the plight of the Cuban proletariat, and Eliades Ochoa and Ibrahim Ferrer cantan “a caballo vamos pa’l monte” with the wisdom and pain of the spry octogenarians they are. With the exception of the precocious Joachim Cooder, every musician was born before the Cuban Revolution of 1959, and they express their talents with decades of experience and pain on every track. The exception to the rule is the precioso “Amor de Loca Juventud,”  the most carefree and jovial composition on the album. It’s the album’s most beautiful accomplishment, and one can hear Compay Segundo and Julio Alberto Fernandez trying to hold back giggles through their flawless harmony. “Amor de Loca Juventud” sounds like artists who find a way to smile through their pain, and it’s a blessing bestowed upon one of the greatest collections of musicians ever assembled.

Next: Franz FerdinandFranz Ferdinand (2004)

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