Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club played for a packed Lisner Auditorium on George Washington University’s campus on October 8. The legendary ensemble’s lyrics and melodies have a way of transporting listeners to the Caribbean, and it didn’t take long for some to start dancing in the aisles. The video I recorded (above) is of the song “El Carretero,” an example of guajira, a country lament.
The name Buena Vista Social Club comes from a members-only club in Havana, Cuba. The club hosted dances and activities and was a popular spot for local musicians to play in the 1940s. Nearly 40 years after it closed, the club inspired Cuban musician Juan de Marcos González and American guitarist Ry Cooder to produce their eponymous studio album.
The album featured traditional Cuban musicians, some of whom had played at the club. The recording garnered international success. German director Wim Wenders created a documentary about the project. The film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary.
Last week’s performance at Lisner featured some of the original musicians from the Buena Vista album who still played with the energy of their youth. Vocalist Omara Portuondo brought the verve to another level when she took the stage for classics such as “Dos Gardenias” and “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás.” “Dos Gardenias” is a bolero, or slow, romantic ballad. “Quizás, Quizás, Quizás” (Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps) is about the response the singer gets after asking her romantic interest if he loves her.
The ensemble’s great success in the United States is a reflection of a wider interest in Cuba. During one of the final numbers, the singers asked the audience to join in on a toast “¡Para Cuba!”, and the response was emphatic. Closed off for so long to Americans, musical acts like Buena Vista Social Club are some of the only clues that we have about the island and its culture.