It's been 20 years since Ry Cooder, British producer Nick Gold and Cuban musical director Juan de Marcos Gonzalez assembled a group of veteran Cuban musicians, christened them Buena Vista Social Club and recorded an album that would become a global phenomenon and sell more than 12 million copies worldwide. (And earn a spot on Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Albums of the Nineties.) Since then, the name – taken from a pre-revolution members-only club – has become as much brand as band, spawning an Oscar-nominated film, renewed interest in Cuban music and spinoff group Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club.
It's the latter – comprised of four original members alongside family members of the original group and other players – that has kept the name active despite the deaths of multiple legends like Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo and Ruben Gonzalez. After an extensive "Adios Tour" around the world, the group returned to Havana's Teatro Karl Marx Saturday night for a rapturous first of two shows.
Saturday's concert was many things: a joyous victory lap; a mournful group eulogy; an act of historical preservation (a new documentary on the group is set for release next year); a nostalgia trip of traditional Cuban styles like son, mambo, guajira and bolero. But above all, it was a showcase and testament to the virtuosic skill of the current original players: laud player Barbarito Torres, guitarist Eliades Ochoa, trumpeter Manuel Mirabel and the incomparable vocalist Omara Portuondo.
Pianist Rolando Luna opened the show with a tribute to Gonzalez as video of the revered pianist, who died in 2003, played onscreen. It would be the first of six tributes to deceased members: an elegiac if painful reminder that 20 years ago, many of the album's musicians were already playing with gray hairs and laugh lines. Perhaps due to the lack of surviving members, only six of the 20 songs on the set list were from the group's debut, with the rest taken from last year's Lost and Found compilation, members' individual work, and Cuban and other standards ("Besame Mucho,"Quizas Quizas Quizas").
As in past concerts, Torres and Mirabel played the entire show, with Ochoa and Portuondo making extended guest appearances. While Mirabel mostly played the background, Torres has always been one of the group's flashiest members, shredding on the laud and, later, effortlessly playing behind his back in deft showmanship. Ochoa's playing, as on "El Carretero," was more mournful and romantic, in line with the Cuban country and blues he helped popularize.
But it was the 85-year-old Portuondo that remains the most charismatic and commanding. Like Aretha Franklin, Portuondo is all things to all people: a crooning, cooing chanteuse; a confident diva; a rousing master of ceremonies. For her five-song set, the singer commanded the crowd to clap, stand up and dance on "No Me Llores Mas" before segueing into a gorgeous version of her romantic ballad "Veinte Anos" with just piano accompaniment. "Besame Mucho" became a crowd sing-along, with Portuondo both leading and playfully teasing the audience.
Her appearance was the first time the Havana crowd got on their feet, with the audience more subdued than the frenetic New York one that welcomed them to the Beacon Theatre last year. Buena Vista Social Club are still a household name in Havana, but have always been more popular outside of Cuba. The band is comprised of some of the country's best musicians, but hardly the only ones. Cuba is teeming with skilled players, with music, both live and recorded, heard throughout Havana and abroad day and night. Still, after global touring, the group seemed comfortable at home, gliding between songs and exhibiting a genial camaraderie between the older and newer members.
While Cuba-U.S. relations are drastically different than when the group first formed, the band remains a throwback to an earlier time. As restrictions under the embargo continue to soften, multinational corporations like Google and Starwood have already begun plotting their takeover of the country. With direct flights to Havana from the United States now a "when, not if" proposition, the country seems poised in the coming years for one of the biggest changes in its history. But Buena Vista Social Club has always remained apolitical and tonight was no different, as the group focused solely on the music. Speaking to Rolling Stone on Saturday, Ochoa jokingly had other things on his mind. "The documentary will hopefully come out in December," he says. "And I look forward to picking up my Oscar in January."
"Come Siento Yo"
"Bodas de Oro "
"Rincon Caliente "
"Bemba Colora "
"Bruca Manigua "
"El Carretoro "
"Estoy Como Nunca "
"Pintate los Labios Maria "
"Veinte Anos "
"No Me Llores Mas "
"Quizas, Quizas, Quizas "
"La Sundunga "
"El Cuarto de Tula"
"Dos Gardenias "