Thursday, February 25, 2010

Buena Vista: Cuban band or brand?

Of course, it's both: quality nostalgia guaranteed.

Buena Vista: Cuban band or brand?

By Michael Voss
BBC News, Havana

Sunday night in Old Havana and dozens of tourists pack into a club on a corner of the colonial Plaza Vieja to hear the sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club.

Leading the night's entertainment is 67-year-old "sonero" Felix Baloy and his big band. Looking dapper in his white suit and white fedora hat, he produces a pulsating evening of traditional rhythms and songs.

Felix Baloy sang on several of the early Buena Vista albums and can now use the name on his billboards. The original band has turned into a brand.

"Buena Vista Social Club has transformed into several bands, including mine," he said.

"I play traditional Cuban music and will continue doing so until the day I die."

'Sound of Cuba'

For many around the world, Buena Vista is the sound that defines Cuban music.

“ Members of the band may change because some have passed away, but the spirit lives on ”
Omara Portuondo Original Buena Vista singer

You can hear songs like Chan Chan played on almost every street corner in the tourist centre of Old Havana.

Yet in Cuba, these are considered "golden oldies". At home, Buena Vista must compete with everything from salsa to reggaeton and the folk ballads of revolutionary idols like Silvio Rodriguez.

"This is such a musical country with so many different rhythms; young people have gone their own way," Mr Baloy says.

"You still hear it here, but for the rest of the world, Buena Vista remains the sound of Cuba."

The original Buena Vista Social Club was a loose collective of ageing musicians brought together by the American guitarist Ry Cooder in 1997, in a bid to re-discover the music of Cuba's pre-revolutionary past.

Since then many of those who shot to stardom in the award-winning film have died, including pianist Ruben Gonzalez and the singer Ibrahim Ferrer.

New generation

It is Ibrahim Ferrer's former band which has taken over the official mantle and today tours the world with a mix of old and new faces, under the name Orquestra Buena Vista Social Club.

Apart from an occasional concert in the beachfront hotel resort of Varadero, the band almost never performs at home.

'Trade mark'

Buena Vista has turned into a project rather than a band.

"It's been converted into a trade mark. A lot of the well-known figures who were in Buena Vista have developed their own bands; that's where the spirit of Buena Vista lies," said Mr Valdes.

Today, this 63-year-old drummer still lives in the same modest Havana apartment in which he grew up.

On the walls of his tiny living room are framed gold disks, along with a fading black-and-white photograph of his father - a clarinettist in an early Cuban big band.

There is also a glamorous colour photo of his daughter, Idania, who has taken over as the lead female singer touring the world with the Orquestra Buena Vista Social Club. She was just 20 when she joined it.

"It was a little unnerving at first, especially stepping in for such a famous name," she admits.

Cuban diva

Omara Portuondo is one of the only original Buena Vista superstars who remains hugely popular at home.

The 79-year-old diva is regularly invited to perform at major cultural and political events.

At a recent Alba summit of left-wing Latin American leaders, the closing ceremony saw Omara singing her way across the platform; Venezuela's Hugo Chavez blew her kisses, Cuba's President Raul Castro reached out and kissed her hand.

She was also the first Cuban musician to be granted a visa to perform in the United States after President Barack Obama ended restrictions on cultural exchanges.

Her most recent album won a Latin Grammy, which she was able to collect in person at the award ceremony in Las Vegas.

Her repertoire has expanded beyond the classic Buena Vista sounds but the band and the music, she believes, will always live on.

"This type of music will always be with us. It's still the Buena Vista sound; members of the band may change because some have passed away but the spirit lives on."

Read the complete story HERE.