Recording of January 1998: Buena Vista Social Club

MUSIC OF CUBA: Buena Vista Social Club
World Circuit/Nonesuch 79478-2. Ry Cooder, prod.; Jerry Boys, eng. AAA. TT: 60:09.
Performance ****?
Sonics *****

Through the years Ry Cooder has introduced his fans and listeners to an astounding variety of musical forms drawn from the furthest reaches of America and the world. From his first Reprise records, which combined Tin Pan Alley descriptions of the Depression ("One Meat Ball") with obscure agrarian protest songs ("How Can A Poor Man See Such Times And Live" and "The Farmer Is The Man"), through his discovery/explorations of zydeco, norteño, and Hawaiian slack key guitar, Cooder has opened the ears of his followers to musical riches most people never dreamt existed.

That's why it makes so much sense that Nick Gold at World Circuit/Nonesuch Explorer—labels with deep, deep catalogs of world and ethnic music—sent him abroad with engineer Jerry Boys to record the revelatory world of "old-school" Cuban jazz. Talk about building on strengths.

One can sense how rooted this music is. The musicians play together so easily, it's as if they were gossiping over their backyard fences. Many of the songs chosen are old forms—sones (footnote 1), boleros, danzons, tumbaos, traditions that were old before Castro came to power—yet one never feels the stultification of genre (foonote 2). This all sounds fresh-made new.

It would be hard to play favorites among this musical cast, but three musicians do stand out: 77 year-old pianist Rubén Gonsález and the amazing bass player Orlando "Cachaito" López. Both men exhibit such rhythmic ease, as well as marvelously distinct musical personalities, that I can't imagine any listener not demanding more. (Good news on that front, Jerry Boys told me he recorded Introducing Rubén Gonsález and A Todo Cuba Le Gusta by The Afro-Cuban All Stars, featuring Cachaito, at the same sessions.)

Additionally, Compay Segundo, the 90-year-old composer and master of the armonico (a seven-stringed guitar that features a doubled G-string for added harmonic resonance), served as the unofficial leader for the sessions. Says Cooder, "He's the source from which it flows. . . As soon as he walked into the studio, it all kicked in. . . He knew the best songs and the way to do them because he's been doing them since the end of WWI."

Buena Vista Social Club is one of the most natural sounding recordings you'll ever hear. Voices, piano, percussion, string bass, families of guitars, and brass instruments ring forth in a large reverberant space, and it sounds relaxed, as familiar as your favorite jeans. A sense of space predominates. The musicians were recorded in a large, reverberant room, but the sound is clear, focused, and immediate. The bass is rich and deep, but not crisply articulated: there's a lot of warmth and bloom. How on earth did Boys manage to strike such a natural balance?

"Egrem Studios, where we recorded, has a big, wonderful-sounding wood-paneled room built by RCA in the 40s for recording big bands. It's very large—60' by 40' by 30' high—and it has a very nice ambient sound. The studio has an Amek Mozart console which is pretty good.

"The essence of the recording is one pair of ambient microphones. When Ry came on out, we had a talk about his philosophy for recording this disc: He wanted it to sound live as well as alive, he wanted everyone to play without headphones, and he would be there in the studio, playing and adjusting levels to balance in the studio. And he wanted to hear the room.

"Eventually we ended up with a pair of Neumann TLM 170 omnis as high as we could get them, something like 20 feet in the air, up in the corners of the room. That's about as over-the-top ambient as you can get. We did close-mike some stuff—you have to on the vocals, of course—but the sound was really built around that pair of Neumanns getting the room sound. We'd use the ambient mics for that sound, then fill in whatever wasn't clear."

And how did Boys and Cooder manage to keep the proceedings so low key? "My job was to try to record them without them knowing it, almost. Ry is good at that. He'd get them comfortable and in the groove, and then he'd give me a nod or a wink and we'd record. We were blessed by wonderful musicians, especially Ry."

Blessed is the right word. Buena Vista Social Club is one of those magical records where everything seems to click. The music is slightly exotic, yet familiar. The performers are outstanding. And Ry Cooder's musical vision to make everyone relaxed, so that all they worried about was the playing, was right on the money. The rich stew of traditional Cuban music, nicely stirred by Cooder and beautifully presented by Boys, is ambrosial. Buena Vista Social Club isn't merely a record, it's nourishment.—Wes Phillips

Footnote 1: Sones are intensely poetic songs filled with complex imagery and flights of eloquence. The only American song form that approaches it in diversity is the blues, but most blues lyrics, expressive as they are, seem like doggerel compared to the elaborate inventions of the son.

Footnote 2: Cuban folk song forms (such as the bolero, danzon, tumbao, and guaracha) are frequently named for the rhythmic structure they are based upon.