Buena Vista Social Club | XIIIfromTOKYO/WikiCommons
The Buena Vista Social Club refers to a Cuban ‘super group’ of veteran musicians, brought together to recreate the musical traditions of pre-revolutionary Cuba.
The name Buena Vista has its origins in a members-only club in Havana’s Buenavista neighbourhood (now known as Playa and also home to the nearly as famous but very different Tropicana Show) that was popular from the 1940s to 1960s.
Part social club, part music venue, the original club thrived in the pre Revolution years when Cuban society operated largely along racial lines. The original Buenavista Social Club was one of a number of what were commonly known as ‘sociedades de negros’ (black societies), and this was reflected in its music where Afro Caribbean styles such as Son, Bolero and Danzon were very much to the fore.
In the years after the Revolution, it was the entirely worthy policies of the government, designed to end the old racial differences that, paradoxically, led to the decline of the old black societies and, by default, the original Buenavista Social Club.
It wasn’t until 1996 that the new Buena Vista Social Club came into being, not organically or at the behest of the Cuban government, but as a project devised by American guitarist Ry Cooder, British music impresario Nick Gold and Cuban director Juan de Marcos Gonzalez.
In order to recreate the traditional sounds and mood of this bygone era, rather than looking to create a band of bright young things, the organisers deliberately recruited a dozen highly regarded, veteran musicians of whom the majority were in the autumn / winter of their careers.
The group began recording in March 1996 and their eponymous album, the Buena Vista Social Club, was released in September 1997.
The album was an almost immediate critical and commercial success and attained even greater global attention after the 1999 release of the Oscar nominated documentary (again called Buena Vista Social Club) by German director Wim Wenders.
On the back of both the album and documentary, Cuban music and musicians enjoyed unparalleled popularity around the world. Many of the original members of the band released solo albums and collaborated with other musicians as well as embarking on international tours.
Due to their respective ages at the start of this new journey, many of the original members of the Buena Vista Social Club are no longer with us although, in various guises, the band plays on.
Although the original band has become, like its forerunner, part of Cuban folklore, the very term Buena Vista Social Club has almost become another way of referring to ‘authentic’ Cuban music and performances.
For many travellers to Cuba, and especially Havana, music is one of the principal reasons for visiting the island. Finding a venue, and a performance, that meets our pre-conceived, romanticised ideas of the Cuban musical experience – a basement bar, thick with cigar smoke, an old man on an acoustic guitar, glass of rum by his side – is rather more difficult.
Although it is undeniably a tourist experience, if you want to experience great, reliable live music with a fun vibe, not to mention a convenient location in Old Havana, you could do a whole lot worse than the Legendarios del Guajirito.
For more detailed advice on what to see and do in the nation’s capital, please refer to our Havana Travel Guide.