Buena Vista Social Club – Buena Vista Social Club at Carnegie Hall

Buena Vista Social Club
Buena Vista Social Club at Carnegie Hall

Exceptional albums are just that, exceptional. When I first heard Buena Vista Social Club’s self-titled masterpiece it’d be quite the understatement to I say that I was moved beyond words. Hearing such gifted, such talented, such passionately devoted musicians like these was truly a blessing from above. And now, with just as much spirit as their 1997 album, this 1998 performance at New York’s famous Carnegie Hall is equally stunning and something each and every lover of music needs to own.

The first three songs start in the exact order as they did on the album and they sound as staggeringly astonishing as ever. The opening strums, the slower, relaxed tempo, that trumpet—all of that—added with the singers rousing voices at the beginning of “Chan Chan” had chills running all over my body. Then you hear those roars from the crowd; the excitement and joy that must have been resonating all around that venue must have been simply magical.

I have the vinyl version so forgive me for not speaking in “disc 1” and “disc 2” terms. My version opens up with a black and white shot of the scene inside of the hall. It’s shot from the back of the stage and you can see all of the crowd standing and cheering; front and center are all of the main musicians in all of their glory: Orlando Lopez, Ibrahim Ferrer, Ry Cooder, Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa and so many more. The performance is just that more special because of all the great songs and appearances that appear. Most of the songs from that self-titled album are found here with a few added contributions by other stars of the club.

“La Enganadora” is all Rubén González’ masterful piano-playing and Octavio Calderón’s terrific trumpet ability. Thunderous excitement comes towards the end and especially on “Almendra” as González planks, thrives and slams on the piano in an upheaval that sends the crowd into a roar and holler—you can hear a single motive and then the crowd reacting in anxiousness for more. A true shining point is González’ bolero, “Dos Gardenias.” Ferrer’s extraordinary singing is conveyed with such fervent passion; to hear a man sing a song that he learned more than 50 years ago with that same flourishing musicianship is remarkable.

As mentioned earlier, there are also nice contributions that weren’t heard on the club’s album. Omara Portuondo lends her vibrant singing to the playful and romping, “Quizas Quizas.” The horns swell and the percussion clanks away as Portuondo sings her heart out. “Candela” and “Orgullecida” are all carried out with an intense love of music. Cooder joins Segundo on the latter with his country-ish take on the Cubans’ style, son. This style recalls the musical giants’ success; it’s complete with picked guitars, piano embellishments and plenty of heart.

If you haven’t seen Wim Wenders film/documentary based on this performance and another in Amsterdam, you really need to. It’s essential for so many reasons but to see the musician’s faces as they live out their dreams is really something else. Their stories are what make everything that much sweeter because they came from troubled backgrounds. Whether it’s ex-shoe shiner Ferrer’s boisterous singing on “De Camino a la Vereda” or any other hand-picked moments on here, it’s all beautiful.

These are musicians who lived their lives for the music. They are fine examples of what music should really be and its purposes. It’s hard to state exactly what those reasons are but if it was to make people smile, laugh and cry at utter joy to be hearing something so aesthetically gorgeous, then I can proudly say that Buena Vista Social Club accomplished this. Even eleven years after their breakthrough success, their music still sounds as fresh and exciting as ever; we are truly lucky.