I have recently been enjoying Cuban music, in particular that of the Buena Vista Social Club and its members.
For those of you who are not familiar with this group of musicians, the story is a modern-day fairytale …
Cuban music has for decades been the envy and shining star of the World (especially Latin) music scene. Many of the stars who put it on the map had retired or had to find an alternative living to make ends meet: selling lottery tickets or shining shoes in the street, or selling tobacco.
In 1996 Juan de Marcos González, a young Cuban bandleader and arranger was fascinated with the old stars of Cuban music traditions such as Son, Guajira, Son Montuno, Rumba and Bolero. He set out to see how many of them were still living (many had been stars in the 1940’s, 1950’ and 1960’s). To his amazement he was able to contact a large number of these national treasures of Cuba’s musical heritage; the list was impressive:
- Don Rubén González – legendary pianist and pioneer of the mambo
- Orlando ‘Cachaito’ López – third generation bassist
- Ibrahim Ferrer, Piya Leyva, Raúl Planas, Manuel ‘Puntillita’ Licea and Omara Portuondo – legendary singers
- Compay Segundo and Eliades Ochoa – tres player and guitarists
- Amadito Valdéz – percussionist
- Barbarito Torres – Laoud player extraordinaire
- Manuel ‘Guajiro’ Mirabal – Cuban legend, trumpet
- … plus more
In order to understand the stature of this group, each one of these names was at the very top of their profession, many having had a significant impact on the history and direction of Cuban music. Each one of these musicians (plus other top calibre musicians) performed together, in the same room at the same time to record the largest selling Latin album ever (over 8 million copies sold). Everyone enjoyed working and performing on the album and no-one was interested in where their name went on the list of credits. Music was being made for the love of the music and no thought was given to any potential financial gain (though this was eventually considerable).
Live performances in Amsterdam followed release of the CD, and the jewel in the crown was when this group of Cuban musicians were able to play a sell-out concert at Carnegie Hall, New York in 1998, captured on film and CD. When you read the album notes and DVD booklet or watch the performances, the joy and emotion of making music together is clear.
This fairytale ending to the story was that these humble people found a new lease of life as they achieved global recognition and ‘stardom’ when many of us would think of taking it easy: most were in their 70’s or 80’s (Compay Segundo was in his 90’s).
By 2005 many of these great characters had passed on and only recently (Feb 2009) the great Cachaito also died … but their legacy continues.
Why have I taken the time to mention all of these people?
Well, imagine a group of top name Rock n’Roll stars gathering to record an album. Now think about the ego problems; who’d play with whom; who wouldn’t play with whom; who would want their name at the top of the list?
For me, the great power and impact of these recordings is the enjoyment, passion and love of the musicians for their music that shines through so clearly. Everyone is in it for everyone else, making the whole band look great. It’s even recalled that at one stage, Ibrahim Ferrer had a bad throat and was struggling to sing and suggested that perhaps someone else should finish the album! That’s a bit like Eric Clapton suggesting someone else should finish off his guitar solo. This level of humility is rarely seem today in a world of get what we can, when we can, however we can.
This excursion into Cuban music has taught me a lot more than just the notes and beats. Engaging with characters of history (and today) who are prepared to make everyone else look good by playing their part has re-challenged me to ask myself, “Is that the sort of character I am? Do people want me in the band for who I am as well as what I can bring.” I read many stories today where the key to a ‘successful’ career in music isn’t so much what you can play, but what you a as a person bring to that particular situation. I also read that our musical output reflects our personality. All I can say is that I hope some of my performances haven’t really let people know what I was feeling on the night!!
I know that rediscovering my love of Latin music through encountering these characters has re-challenged me to be a musician that people want to play with, rather than a musician whose talents are admired. It has also reminded me that I cannot try to project and hide behind a different ‘musical persona’. Music is too transparent for that. I guess my priority is to ensure that my day-to-day life is such that I’m happy for people to see the real me when I play as a musician.
Or perhaps when I get my priorities in life right, my music will take care of itself