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- Posted on Oct 22nd 2008 10:00AM by Steve Hochman
Blame it on the Buena Vista.
All that gratuitous cigar smoke. All that reduction of Cuban music to a "lifestyle" background soundtrack. Heck, even the turn of Havana as a "fashionable" travel destination, if not the subsequent tightening of trade and travel restrictions.
Blame it on Ry Cooder. Blame it on Nick Gold. Blame it on Wim Wenders. Blame it on Rubén González and Omara Portuondo.
And then clear your mind. Take a breath of smoke-free air. And listen to 'The Buena Vista Social Club at Carnegie Hall.' The new two-CD collection was recorded on July 1, 1998, at the height of Buena Vista-mania, the triumphant zenith of the first U.S. tour of this aggregate of veteran Cuban music legends. This was just a year after these aging figures and their colorful variety of classic Cuban son were brought out of fading obscurity to international attention via the original 'Buena Vista Social Club' album, spurred by World Circuit Records honcho Gold and produced by American guitarist Cooder. The project reconvened many artists who were part of the original Buena Vista, which served as ground zero for the "golden age" of Cuban music in the '40s, and the Carnegie appearance was a cultural event as much as a concert -- Old Havana coming to New New York. Highlights from the show figured prominently in Wenders' acclaimed documentary released a year later.
Now, as you listen, give simple thanks to whomever that this sat in the can for a decade. How fresh it sounds today! How vibrant, from the first ovation-spurring notes of 'Chan Chan' through the spotlight features for such titanic singers as Ibrahim Ferrer and the Cuban jazz showcases led by pianist González. Portuondo sounds one-third of the 67 she was at the time of the recording, lilting through the bubbly 'Quizas, Quizas,' her voice parrying with Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabel's bright trumpet. It's every bit as revelatory as the introductory album had been and arguably even more involving for the concert setting. You can hear the joy of the performers and audience alike.
The thing is, if this had been released back then, it would have gotten lost in the shuffle, just one of many items from what was already becoming a Buena Vista juggernaut. For years it seemed there was an endless stream of albums featuring one or more of these performers put out under the umbrella name, as well as dozens if not hundreds of other albums (archival and new, single-artist and compilations) drafting behind with similar titles and artwork. As good as many of these were -- and all the "official" releases were terrific, notably albums by Ferrer, Portuondo, Gonzalez and bassist Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez -- the cumulative effect was a bit of overload. Buena Vista became less a matter of music and more of a brand. And an ubiquitous one at that; the musical wallpaper for seemingly every mid-level restaurant and clothing boutique that had previously had Gipsy Kings CDs on endless repeat.
By holding this for 10 years, Gold and his American partner Nonesuch Records have given us a chance to experience this again a bit removed from all that, while reinforcing the notion that the Buena Vista project itself was valuable if for nothing else for getting these musicians together while there was still a chance. In the intervening years six of the performers have passed (Ferrer, González, vocalists Manuel "Puntillita" Licea and Pio Leyva, singer and tres player Compay Segundo and percussionist Anga Diaz) and 'At Carnegie Hall' is at the very least a marvelous epitaph and celebration of their lives. But it's also a celebration of those still with us and still active -- Portuondo has just released 'Gracias,' an album that simultaneously evokes the classic Havana clubs and highlights the place the Buena Vista figures now hold on the world stage by supporting her with musicians from all over the globe.
So yeah, put the CD on. Whip up a medianoche and stick it on the grill. Oh, OK. Go ahead and light up a contraband Cohiba.