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Buena Vista Social Club: Cuban band or brand?

Orquestra Buena Vista Social Club performs at Havana College of Music
The band holds a rare session at the Havana college of music

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.

Omara Portuondo Feb 2010
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.

It's important that we pass this music on to the younger generation so that it's not forgotten
Angel "Terry" Domech
Conga player

One recent exception was an informal practice session held at Havana's college of music.

Several of the original stars who have since gone on to have solo careers of their own, like singer Omara Portuondo and drummer Amadito Valdes, also joined in.

"We want these students to drink in these traditional sounds. It's important that we pass this music on to the younger generation so that it's not forgotten," said conga player Angel "Terry" Domech, before taking to the stage.

Amadito Valdes is one of the younger members of the original band made famous by the film.

These days he tours the world with a band of his own, but remains immensely proud of what they achieved.

"Buena Vista Social Club retook the Latin music market which Cuba, for political reasons, had lost. Tourism in Cuba also shot up after, particularly after the release of the Wim Wenders film."

'Trade mark'

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

Idania Valdes
Idania Valdez is the lead singer of the Orquestra Buena Vista Social Club

"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 clarinetist 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.

Felix Baloy
Felix Baloy has seen Buena Vista's influence grow

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."


BBC World and BBC News America are broadcasting a series of special reports from Cuba.

Watch Matt Frei explore life on the island and Michael Voss explain how its medical students are improving the country's image abroad at 1905 GMT.



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SEE ALSO
Buena Vista bassist Cachaito dies
10 Feb 09 |  Entertainment
Buena Vista singer Pio Leyva dies
23 Mar 06 |  Entertainment
Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer dies
07 Aug 05 |  Entertainment
Buena Vista pianist Gonzalez dies
09 Dec 03 |  Entertainment
Cuba mourns Buena Vista maestro
15 Jul 03 |  Entertainment
Joining the Buena Vista Social Club
09 Apr 01 |  Entertainment

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