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Last Updated: Tuesday, 9 December, 2003, 12:59 GMT
Buena Vista pianist Gonzalez dies
By Stephen Gibbs
BBC correspondent in Havana

The Cuban pianist Ruben Gonzalez, one of the leading members of the musicians that formed the Buena Vista Social Club, has died aged 84.

Gonzalez reached world stardom in the late 1990s but his career began in the 1940s at Havana's Tropicana cabaret.

Buena Vista founder and musician Ry Cooder described him as "the greatest piano soloist I have ever heard".

His death follows that earlier this year of another key member of the Buena Vista Social Club, Compay Segundo.

Ruben Gonzalez
A Cuban cross between Thelonius Monk and Felix the Cat
Ry Cooder

The young Gonzalez studied both medicine and classical music, with the intention of becoming a doctor by day and a pianist by night.

However, at the age of 22, he gave up his medical ambitions to become a full-time musician.

From the 1940s onwards, Gonzalez was at the forefront of modern Cuban music, blending jazz and Latin rhythms.

In the 1950s he travelled to Panama and Argentina where he played with local tango musicians, absorbing the rhythmic influences that gave his work its distinctive style.

Gonzalez returned to Havana in the 1960s and joined the band of Enrique Jorrin - credited with the invention of the cha-cha-cha - with whom he worked until Jorrin's death 25 years later.

Compay Segundo
Buena Vista star Compay Segundo died in July 2003

Always perfectly turned-out, Gonzalez had thought he had retired in 1996, when US guitarist Ry Cooder asked him to join in the Buena Vista Social Club recordings.

Despite suffering from arthritis and not owning a piano at the time, he was said to be overjoyed, and every morning waited outside the studio before it opened.

The pianist so impressed Cooder and co-producer Nick Gold that he was persuaded to record the solo album Introducing... Ruben Gonzalez.

Comprising traditional Cuban jazz and innovative new rhythms, the album was recorded live over just two days.

It led Cooder to describe him as "a Cuban cross between Thelonius Monk and Felix the Cat".

Released in 1998, The Buena Vista Social Club won global recognition and a Grammy for the veteran stars - known in Cuba as the super-abuelos (the super-grandfathers).

Ibrahim Ferrer
Vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer gave a concert in London earlier this year

Gonzalez went on to contribute to two further albums featuring the Buena Vista Social Club and showcasing artists Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portoundo.

Wim Wenders 1999 documentary followed, underlining Gonzalez' quiet application and elegant musical style.

With his death, and that of Compay Segundo, Cuba has lost two men whom in the final years of their lives introduced the world to a style of Cuban music that had almost been lost.

The BBC's Stephen Gibbs
"In the 50s and 60s he was at the forefront of modern Cuban music"

Buena Vista legend laid to rest
15 Jul 03  |  Entertainment
Buena Vista maestro dies
14 Jul 03  |  Entertainment
Joining the Buena Vista Social Club
09 Apr 01  |  Entertainment
Buena Vista violinist dies after show
10 Apr 01  |  Entertainment


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