Buena Vista Social Club
For Americans seeking music from the outside world decades back, the old Nonesuch Explorer series amounted to an oasis. The revived Explorer series has brought us Cesaria Evora and Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares. And now that Nonesuch has signed a distribution deal with the London-based World Circuit label, the exploration instinct continues in a different form, and in a different world. These days, world music labels circle the globe, in more ways than one, and the Nonesuch deal is just one more piece in a puzzle that grows evermore complex.
But it's an exciting piece, highlighted by the release of three albums recorded in Cuba. The story behind the best of them, Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit/Nonesuch 050; 60:07), adds a layer of mystique and discovery to an already rich musical experience. World Circuit president Nick Gold made a well-placed call to guitarist and world-music traveller Ry Cooder, whose '90s albums with V.M. Bhatt and Ali Farka Toure captured justifiable attention-i.e. commercial activity and Grammies. Cooder had long loved Cuban music and hopped on a plane in March of 1996.
The original idea was to bring together musicians from Africa with Cubans and find common ground between them-trace the Afro-Cuban connection from the ground up. But after travel snafus prevented the Africans' arrival in Havana, they changed the tack, instead gathering together a group of older Cuban musicians in the Son tradition, a vintage Cuban genre less familiar than the popularized salsa.
Led by the 89-year-old Compay Segundo, the project is a rare window on an underrated musical universe, recorded in the urban-yet-rustic heart of a city where time has, in some way, stood more still than most cities. The album kicks off with its most tantalizing track, Segundo's song "Chan Chan," graced with a few of Cooder's signature slide guitar notes and low guitaristic murmurings. But, in the main, Cooder's role as a guitarist is downplayed here: instead, his production task was to corral, edit, and organize the reunion, which sometimes meant going down the street and roping legends into the studio.