CUBAN SOUNDS FLOW
They are respected in the Havana music scene taking their rich mix of rumba, cha-cha-cha, mambo and bolero influences to the world
In Cuba, the music flows like a river, Ry Cooder said of his experiences there. “It takes care of you and rebuilds you from the inside out.’’ Jesus Aguaje Ramos, trombonist and band leader for the group now billed as Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club, knows all about that river, the one that has sustained him as it flowed to the world these past 18 years.
He was a long-established player in the Havana music scene when the gamechanging first album by the Afro-Cuban All Stars was recorded in Havana for the London world music label World Circuit.
The recording took place at Egrem Studios, and local bandleader Juan de Marcos Gonzalez brought artists such as the virtuoso pianist Ruben Gonzalez out of retirement.
That was followed by the Buena Vista Social Club album, produced by Cooder and featuring Gonzalez and other long-neglected greats of Cuban traditional music, including Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo.
Ramos played on many of these recordings and has toured the world since.
Buena Vista Social Club went on to sell more than seven million copies, as well as launch brief solo careers for several of the participants.
Segundo and Gonzalez died in 2003, and Ferrer in 2005, but the great traditions of Cuban music had been rescued from obscurity. Ramos moved to Havana in 1979.
“I was a follower of Ruben Gonzalez and his work; I worked with a quartet playing some of the songs he had written many years before,’’ Ramos says.
“Ruben and (Enrique) Jorrin initiated the cha-chacha rhythm in the ’40s and ’50s, and Ruben later played with Jorrin for many years (until Jorrin died in 1987).
“Ibrahim played at a dance in Havana, which is where he and Ruben became friends.’’
Cooder was blown away by the piano skills of the 77-yearold Gonzalez when he arrived at Egrem Studios during the recording of Buena Vista Social Club and, at the conclusion of that six-day session, carried on to record Ruben’s first solo album, Introducing … Ruben Gonzalez.
Ramos says: “I owe Ruben so much. He taught me how to organise a band, how to direct a band, how to please an audience. He told me even if he doesn’t like a song but the audience does he had to play it, out of respect for the people who have come to hear him.
“He told me always to be confident and truthful to the music.’’
Cuban music draws on a rich mix of cultures, from waves of Spanish and French settlers and slaves who brought their rhythms from Africa, melding into styles such as danzon and bolero. From the rural areas came the folk music known as son, while in the cities the Afro-Cuban descendants of the slaves called their parties rumbas, and the cha-cha-cha and mambo developed.
Cubans such as Perez Prado and Desi Arnaz (once married to Lucille Ball) took the music to huge audiences in the US, but after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, many originators were left stranded at home, unrewarded but later revered by players such as Ramos.
Veterans of the Buena Vista sessions, including Ramos, singer Portuondo, trumpeter Guajiro Mirabal and laud player Barbarito Torres, still tour with Orquesta Buena Vista.
“We have made the promise to ourselves to keep those roots of traditional Cuban music alive,’’ Ramos says.
The group is making a farewell world tour, the Adios tour.
“The success of Buena Vista Social Club has influenced the new musicians in Havana. Concerts were offered in the music schools to get more people interested in traditional music.
“We are very proud of this work, rescuing something that people thought was lost.”
Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club has influenced the new musicians in Havana and are making a farewell world tour.