When I was a child, my Mexican grandfather always played Cuban music. He gave me my first official tape: 10 hits by Cuban muscian Dámaso Pérez Prado (aka “El rey del mambo”), who later immigrated to Mexico in the 1970s. My grandmother also had a huge record collection, and I would always hear Eydie Gorme y Los Panchos play Cuban boleros with a guitar trio and sweet harmonies. In 1991, I remember Luis Miguel on top of the world with his best-selling album of all time, Romance, which was a Hollywood strings-and-saxophone upgrade of bolero hits from Cuban and Mexican composers. Finally, as I entered high school, my mother brought me a tape from a coworker and said, “You gotta hear this.” It was the 1998 breakthrough album from Buena Vista Social Club, and I couldn’t stop listening to it — “El carretero,” “Chan Chan,” “El cuarto de tula,” and, of course, “Dos gardenias.” The classic Cuban sounds of the ’40s and ’50s have never died in popularity. The resurgence of Buena Vista Social Club (BVSC) in the late 1990s carved another chapter in the story of Cuban music; however, with only a few living original members left, their current Adios Tour hits a bittersweet note in the international community. The generation of Classic Cuban musicians has officially passed the guard to a new epoch in Cuban music.
Santa Barbarans were lucky to see them perform for one last time. The Granada Theatre was sold-out, packed, and full of a raucously clapping, multicultured bunch, bursting with catcalls, cow-calls, and Arsenio Hall arm-cranking calls. It was refreshing to see the usually sit-down Granada transform into a sea of people all standing up, and with the corner aisles teeming with dancers. While a projected backdrop displayed photos paying homage to deceased BVSC members, the band played their classics along with unexpected favorites, such as “Bésame mucho” and “Over the Rainbow,” and all in their trademark sensual, laidback Cuban style. To hear them live is a 5th-dimensional experience, a journey laced with a Milky Way clave and buttery in-the-pocket tumbao.
The legendary version of “Chan Chan” sung by guitarist Eliades Ochoa, dressed in black with matching cowboy hat, was like a watching a Cuban Johnny Cash shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die — simply awesome. To see the diva Omara Portuondo sing her smoky piano duet in a spotlight, Casablanca-style, was life-changing. To bear witness to Barbarito Torres trilling his laúd like a boss and playing his Guajiro string machine behind his back was to know perfection.
The golden-age Guajiro style will remain classic and its generation legendary primarily thanks to the contributions of this group. Evident, however, was a hint of merengue and timba rifts creeping in through some percussion breakdowns. With the merengue-styled song “A la luna yo me voy” performed live and featured on the album AfroCubism, a musical collaboration between musicians from Mali and Cuba, it is evident that even the culturally pure BVSC has shown signs of the evolution. Yet we have only seen the tip of the iceberg; with the Cuban embargo being lifted, it will be interesting to discover what the new Cuban guard has in store for us.