Buena Vista Social Club Captured Already-Lost History on ‘At Carnegie Hall’

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There was an uncommon nostalgia associated with this concert recording, and not just because of the lost history shared amongst these aging former Cuban stars. Alas, by the time Buena Vista Social Club at Carnegie Hall was released on Oct. 13, 2008, many of the original group had already passed.

Yet, it still plays like a kinetic burst of light, with these spicy instrumental flourishes unheard on the Buena Vista Social Club’s original self-titled studio release and an enduring life-affirming passion for one another, their country and this music.

Produced by Ry Cooder, At Carnegie Hall was recorded during a July 1, 1998 appearance when many of the participants were in their 70s, 80s, even 90s. In keeping, many of the tunes date back a half century and more in their native Cuba – beginning with the minor-key opener “Chan Chan,” a story of ageless love that had already become the group’s unofficial theme song.

The Buena Vista studio recording that led to this once-in-a-lifetime show had sold some 8 million copies in 1997, won a Grammy a year later and then spawned a Wim Wenders documentary in 1999 – with the Buena Vista Social Club’s performance at Carnegie as its climax. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine listed Buena Vista Social Club at No. 260 in its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time – all of which helped earn the group a new nickname back home: “Los Superabuelos,” or the Super-Grandfathers.

“Today,” the then-91-year-old guitarist Compay Segundo said at one point during this concert, “I represent the past.” They all did, in their own ways.

Segundo, who played and sang with a restrained sensuality, was joined by these tangy blasts of trumpet from Octavio Calderon and Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal on standout cuts like “El Cuarto de Tula.” Later, Barbarito Torres’ impossibly fleet work on the laud, a 12-string Cuban lute, drew roars from the assembled crowd. Fellow guitarist Eliades Ochoa was part of a co-mingled vocal chorus that included Ibrahim Ferrer, the elegant gentleman crooner who would launch another solo career; Manuel “Puntillita” Licea; and Pio Leyva, who had worked with Segundo since the early 1950s.

Ruben Gonzalez – retired in his 70s, then a shooting star all over again on this stage again at 80 – provided a clever counterpoint at the piano. He was particularly effective on “Buena Vista Social Club,” a spectacular showcase moment written by bass player Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez’s uncle Israel Lopez. It’s no surprise that the rhapsodic Gonzalez subsequently parlayed the success of performances like this into a minor hit record called Introducing … Ruben Gonzalez.

He was gone by the time the two-disc At Carnegie Hall was belatedly issued on Nonesuch. In fact, the group had been decimated: Licea died in 2000, Segundo and Gonzalez in 2003, Ferrer in 2005, and Leyva in 2006. Surviving members, including Mirabal and conductor Aguaje Ramos, were continuing at that point under the catch-all moniker of Buena Vista Social Club, but At Carnegie Hall still stands as the most complete testament to this group’s sizzling mid-1990s Cuban revival. It’s a remarkable demonstration of this group’s power and glory.

When bandleader Juan de Marcos Gonzalez sent the group sprinting through “La Engonadora,” it’s simply impossible to resist Buena Vista’s buoyant fervor. “Almendra,” a Gonzalez feature unheard on either the studio album or the film, marched out with a memorably proud glint. This wasn’t the melting-pot Afro-Cuban jazz popularized by Dizzy Gillespie, but something more traditional, and more elemental. It connected on that level, too. Buena Vista was the sound of love itself, somehow both floral and firm.

Cooder, the American songwriter, joined Segundo on slide guitar for the “Orgullecida,” adding a touch of Western swing. But Segundo, who often played a self-made seven-stringed instrument called an armonico, managed to completely occupy the spotlight anyway. His bold baritone was also featured on “Y Tu Que Has Hecho?,” over a bouncing bolero rhythm. If Ferrer hadn’t already stolen the show with his poignant reading of “Dos Gardenias,” he completed that process while storming through a completely improvised “Candela,” adding lines and changing others, as was his habit in concert after brilliant concert.

At Carnegie Hall ended with the haunting duet “Silencio,” another bolero featuring the sparkling tenor of Ferrer – a shoe-shine man before the Buena Vista Social Club shot to unexpected stardom – and Omaro Portuondon, the only female in this collective. But, the truth is, these moments of vivid, absorbing beauty were very nearly countless across this 16-song collection. Each was packed with as much effervescence and emotion as sheer, speaker-rattling virtuosity.

With every listen to At Carnegie Hall, it becomes more clear that we will never see their likes again. Thankfully, however, this remarkable souvenir means we will always be able to hear the Buena Vista Social Club.

Jimmy Nelson

Jimmy Nelson

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Jimmy Nelson
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