In 1996, American guitarist and producer Ry Cooder was dispatched to Cuba by World Circuit Records to record with African musicians, but when he arrived in Havana he was told that the musicians from Mali were unable to acquire passports. Having already booked studio time, Cooder and the label decided to utilize the local session musicians already hired on for the project, as well as a few others, to record traditional Cuban son music (a genre that mixes Spanish song and guitar with African rhythms and percussion). What resulted was the 1997 landmark album Buena Vista Social Club, which was an international smash hit selling 8 million copies to date and winning multiple Grammys.
One of the results of the album’s unforeseen mega-success was the chance to play Carnegie Hall in New York City, an opportunity that must have seemed surreal for the mostly 70-something-year-old Cuban musicians who had played for decades with moderate local success but because of the embargo were not allowed to play in the States. On July 1, 1998, the all-star ensemble played to an enthusiastic sold-out crowd, a set that was heralded as a once-in-a-lifetime performance by passionate virtuosos at their tightest as a unit. It took more than a decade, but that legendary show is now available on record store shelves — a 78-minute double-CD called At Carnegie Hall (released by World Circuit).
The first thing that strikes me about At Carnegie Hall is the sound quality. This album sounds amazing, with a power and resonance that blows the studio album away. From the opening applause and the instantly recognizable chords of “Chan Chan” you know you are in for an audiophile’s treat. Live albums always have the potential to go wrong with substandard recording quality, but this album sounds better than the studio album to my ears, a testament to Cooder’s meticulous mixing and mastering. And the performance itself is spectacular. Lead vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer’s voice is raw and emotive; pianist Ruben Gonzalez seems to float effortlessly yet precisely over each key he touches. Standout tracks include “Chan Chan,” “Dos Gardenias,” and “Candela,” but really this whole set is phenomenal.
In the past few years, a handful of the Buena Vista musicians have passed away. Most notably, vocalist Ferrer, pianist Gonzalez, and guitarist/composer Compay Segundo. A trio of musicians that talented and inspired is not likely to ever be assembled again, for any genre. If you’re already a fan, chances are you’ve bought At Carnegie Hall already. If you haven’t, what are you waiting for? And if this is your first time hearing of Buena Vista Social Club, or if you’ve heard the name but have never given the music a shot, now is the time. Pick up this CD. It’s arguably as good if not a better introduction to this legendary group as the original studio album.