In 1996, the Buena Vista Social Club was formed in large part due to a happy accident. Legendary guitarist Ry Cooder – noted for having taught Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones to play in open-G tuning in the mid-60s – was visiting Havana to record a session with two musicians from Mali and a Cuban backing band. As luck would have it, the African musicians were forced to cancel at the last minute. Cooder, however, was still determined to make the most of his time in Cuba. He worked to recruit a band of local musicians – several of them Havana legends enjoying their twilight years – with the goal of recording an album of authentic Cuban son music with an American pop twist. Besides Cooder, other standout musicians included musical director Juan de Marcos González, pianist Rubén González, vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, and trumpeter Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal. 1997 saw the release of the group’s eponymous album, which became a sensational hit and sparked a trending interest towards Cuban music in the Western world.
Just as significant as the band’s music was the documentary shot by filmmaker Wim Wenders. The film, released in 1999, covered the incidental beginnings of the group, the inspired recording sessions and collective songwriting, and the mesmerizing concerts that the full band performed in Amsterdam and New York to promote the album release. The documentary was nominated for an Academy Award and brought even more attention to the group, the storied history of Cuban music, and the stalemate in relations between the American and Cuban governments. One especially notable example is that, due to the embargo, the band was not able to earn any money outside of covering travel and lodging expenses while on tour in the U.S.
In addition to earning a Grammy Award, selling over five million copies, and being revered as creating one of the best recorded albums of Cuban music in history, Buena Vista Social Club have had a direct impact in revitalizing the Cuban music community. Tourism blossomed as the band’s listeners developed an interest in Cuban culture and history. Many Cuban musicians and buskers fill the streets by day and the clubs by night with the songs that Buena Vista made famous, ensuring that the proud musical tradition will endure for many years to come. Although several of Buena Vista Social Club’s founding members have passed away in the past decade – some as old as their 80s or 90s – several surviving members continue to tour and perform under the name Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club. The band’s eclectic, ever-evolving take on Cuban song and salsa have allowed Americans to peek behind the curtain into Havana’s proud and vibrant culture. Time will tell when these two governments will mend their political relations, but there is no questioning that this music initiated a long overdue conversation between divided cultures. This is true progress, and – just think – it would not have been possible without that first serendipitous jam session.