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Nick Gold presided over the Buena Vista Social Club recording that sold more than 8 million copies, won a Grammy and brought global recognition to its participants. A 25th-anniversary box set edition was released in September.
Working on the 25th Anniversary Edition of Buena Vista Social Club has taken me back again to that once-in-a-lifetime session. Not that it needs much of a trigger for the memories to come flooding back. But these previously unreleased songs, takes and rehearsals cause an instant flashback to the joy, excitement and sense of responsibility I felt in that wonderful wood-paneled room, surrounded by that most perfect ensemble making its debut.
We went to Havana’s EGREM Studios in March 1996 to record two albums. We didn’t have album titles, the bands themselves didn’t exist, and it was my first time recording in Cuba.
In the first week, during the recording of what became the debut Afro Cuban All Stars album (A Toda Cuba Le Gusta), I encountered Rubén González. He was waiting by the studio door and once it was unlocked, he shuffled toward the piano, sat down, opened the lid and began to play. And play and play. While other musicians walked in, greeted him and warmed up, while microphones were being placed and music was being passed around, he improvised some of the most beautiful music I’d ever heard. It was like listening to Jelly Roll Morton’s Library of Congress recordings. Strange (to my uneducated ears) danzons, habaneras, descargas and boléros played in a never-ending medley with a sublime touch. Bandleader Juan de Marcos, who’d invited him to the sessions, had to gently ease down the piano lid to stop him playing so the band could get on and rehearse and record. But at every break, and especially every morning, he poured out that dream music. Once I realized that the African musicians we had scheduled weren’t going to make it for the following week’s session, I suggested we keep Rubén on for the “Eastern Album” (as Buena Vista was originally called). About the same time, producer Ry Cooder called from L.A. asking if we could find a pianist called “Rubén something.” He’d heard him soloing on records where the musicians were calling out his name. “He’s right here, sitting next to me!” I said.
Another soloist from the All Stars session who I fell for was the great trumpet player Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal. Unlike Rubén, he only played when called upon. But it was always perfect. Beautiful, inventive little solos and comments, played with a personal sound, reminded me of a Cuban version of the Ellington or Basie small group soloists. We asked him to stay on for the “Eastern Album,” too.
Eliades Ochoa was one of the very few of the musicians I’d known before arriving in Havana. We’d invited him in from Santiago, and lo and behold, it turned out that he’d recently teamed up with the veteran Santiago maestro Compay Segundo (“The Bible,” Juan de Marcos called him, and “like having Louis Armstrong on the session,” according to Ry). Eliades and Compay would reel off these Santiago dance songs one after the other, seeing which ones might get recorded. These repertoire suggestions, complete with two-voice harmonies and guitar solos, were captured on a pair of mics we had going direct to stereo DAT tape throughout the sessions. (Even footsteps sounded great in that room.) Ry really fell for Compay and the two of them would sit in intimate conference on these little green wooden chairs in the middle of the studio, talking repertoire and guitar parts while I tried to keep their haven secure from the steadily rising hubbub around them.
We recorded fast, but it was both concentrated and relaxed. Ry and Jerry Boys (the engineer I brought from England) established a wonderful sound that envelops you and makes you feel like you’re sitting right there amongst the band. We didn’t have “talk back,” and I remember being in the studio (trying to keep still because of the very creaky floor) waving at Jerry in the control room to record as soon as we had a song ready. If the musicians became too aware of an impending take, they would start tuning up again or re-rehearsing the coda and the moment would be diluted. You can see from the track sheets and their temporary song titles (and sometimes musicians’ names) how fast we were going. Nearly everything is first or second take. Never to be repeated. - Nick Gold
Featured photo by Ebet Roberts.