Producer Nick Gold opens up about the making of the Buena Vista Social Club’s as the beloved album turns 25...
Back in 1996, when legendary blues guitarist Ry Cooder was invited to Havana, Cuba by British world music producer Nick Gold to record a session where two African highlife musicians from Mali were to collaborate with Cuban musicians, nobody was expecting that the project would have much of a life beyond a tight niche audience.
And, on Cooder's arrival, which had already been truncated as he'd had to travel via Mexico to avoid the ongoing trade and travel embargo against Cuba by the US, it transpired that the musicians from Africa had not received their visas and were unable to travel to Havana.
With their plans up in the air, Cooder and Gold changed tack and decided to record an album of Cuban son music with local musicians. Enlisting musicians such as bassist Orlando "Cachaito" López, guitarist Eliades Ochoa, musical director Juan de Marcos González, singer Manuel "Puntillita" Licea, pianist Rubén González and singer Compay Segundo, the pair had a studio and six days to come up with an album.
The result, the Buena Vista Social Club, was a gigantic and unexpected hit. Released in September 1997, the album went on to sell over 12 million copies and score itself a Grammy. As well as that, director Wim Wenders’ 1999 documentary about the project was nominated for an Oscar. Now, almost 25 years on, the album has been reissued.
The reissue has the album newly remastered and features previously unheard tracks from the original 1996 recording sessions. It's out in hmv stores today and we spoke to Gold about his memories of putting the album together...
Who was it that first had the idea to go to Cuba to make a record?
"We went to Havana in 1996 to record two projects. The first was the Cuban band leader Juan de Marcos González’s Afro Cuban All Stars project which was a multi-generational tribute to the big band sound of Havana in the 1940s and 1950s. We had met in London and recorded with his group Sierra Maestra and discovered a shared passion for that era’s music of Arsenio Rodríguez."
"The second was the record that became Buena Vista Social Club which was originally my idea of a guitar-based collaboration between Malian guitarists and the smaller group music of Santiago de Cuba. I invited Ry to the latter and it turned out he’d always wanted to travel to Cuba to record."
How did you go about finding and recruiting all of these incredible musicians once you got there?
"We had made plans and invited musicians in advance of the trip. For example, I’d invited Eliades Ochoa and Barbarito Torres at the outset as I’d grown to know their music. Cachaíto was the obvious choice as a bass player for everything. Rubén González, like Cachaíto, had been invited by Juan de Marcos for the Afro Cuban All Stars project and I’d fallen in love with his playing."
"Ry called and asked if we could find a pianist called ‘Rubén something’ who he’d heard on a record. I said ‘he’s right here next to me!’. Rubén didn’t really fit with the Santiago idea but when the African idea had to be side-lined these things seemed less important. Compay, Ry asked for, Ibrahim was suggested by Barbarito, Omara was invited by Juan de Marcos when he saw her in the neighbouring studio. Musicians know musicians and Juan de Marcos did an amazing job as a fixer."
What was the recording process like? With so many musicians and the film crew there too it must’ve been quite chaotic?
"It was a bit chaotic at first. We had a lot of musicians in the studio. Then the tape machine broke and was lying in pieces all over the control room floor. I could have cried. All this music and we couldn’t record. But, in the end, it was a good thing. Took the pressure off and we were able to rehearse and have a think and reduce the size of the ensemble. Customise the line-up to the song."
"We recorded a lot of material in a very short space of time. A lot of first takes. It was intense and hard work. But good work, you know. There was no film crew at the sessions. Wim Wenders and crew filmed some of the recordings of Ibrahim’s first album and this was used in the movie. Susan Cooder did some wonderful filming on her little Sony camera but she didn’t contribute to any chaos."
Who suggested the ideas for which songs to record, and how did you decide which of them ended up on the record?
"We came with a repertoire that we’d sent to one another on cassette beforehand, but only a few of those songs made it to recording. El Carretero and El Cuarto de Tula, for example, I was determined to record. Most of the songs were suggested by the musicians themselves by playing them in the studio. Rubén would play and play all day including the two danzóns which I loved. Eliades started playing ‘Candela’ as a greeting to Ibrahim when he arrived, De Camino A La Vereda was a rare Ibrahim composition, which Ry encouraged Compay to interpolate another song as its bridge. Veinte Años was suggested by Compay and Omara as their duet, and so on."
"It was like having the personal desert island song list from these amazing storied musicians. When Compay arrived he dove straight in with Chan Chan and that’s the first thing we recorded. After that Ry would spend a lot of time with Compay talking and playing together and researching repertoire. Ry has a very good ear for a song. When we got all the songs back home Ry and I looked to try and represent everyone and give the album a shape and variety. Ry did a great sequence."
There’s a very ambient sound to the record, everything sounds like it was recorded live – how did you go about achieving that?
"I brought the engineer Jerry Boys out for the sessions from London. He’s very experienced with a group sound and he knew the studio from an earlier session. The big room at Egrem in Havana we recorded in is wonderful. The best sounding room I’ve ever been in. Ry was very keen on capturing the beautiful natural sound of the room with its great reverb so we set up two ambient mics as high as we could. We used closer mics on the instruments and voices but most of the sound on the record comes from those ambient mics."
"The musicians were sat very close together to get good physical interaction and internal dynamic and to avoid having to use headphones. Everything was recorded live, save one or two electric guitar overdubs done later in Los Angeles, in one of two takes. This was an ensemble playing together for the first time and there’s an immediacy of performance that’s captured."
Where did you find the studio you recorded everything at?
"The studio was booked by my friend, the bandleader Juan De Marcos González. Jerry had worked there before and so, coincidentally had Ry just a few months before on a project with The Chieftains. It was built in the 1950s for the great independent label Panart and had witnessed some classic recordings of Afro Cuban music such as Cachao’s jam sessions, Abelardo Barroso’s great records with Sensacion and many more. A Cathedral of Cuban Sound."
Obviously, not all of the original members are still with us, sadly, but we understand the band is still touring. Are there any shows planned to celebrate the album’s 25th anniversary?
"The band is no longer touring. The original line-up only played three shows – two in Amsterdam and one in Carnegie Hall, New York. Individual members still play but not as Buena Vista Social Club."
What can we expect to find on the new anniversary reissue of the album?
"Apart from some great new notes, info and previously unseen photographs, the real jewels are the previously unreleased recordings. Loads of them. Some recorded for the album and as good as anything on the album and some wonderful informal rehearsals and repertoire suggestions all taken from the original sessions."
Buena Vista Social Club is reissued this week and is available now in hmv stores. You can purchase it here in hmv's online store.