I first heard about the Buena Vista Social Club back in the mid-1990s, probably through Ry Cooder. The minute the album went on sale at Rhino Records in Westwood, I bought my import copy for $27.00 and fell in love with them from the very first notes. I was the first to air them on the radio.
Five years later in 2000, I was lucky to be the host when the Buena Vista Social Club performed at the Hollywood Bowl. It was a full house that night, almost 18,000 people. I still have the big poster with my name on it.
During soundcheck, I interviewed the band’s great singer, Ibrahim Ferrer, backstage. I wore a t-shirt that day that had the words “Cubans Baseball Club Havana International League Sugar AAA Kings, Un Paso Mas y Llegamos, Gran Stadium de la Habana, Habana, Cuba” printed on the front. Quite a mouthful for a teeshirt.
When Ibrahim saw it, he told me that it was his favorite baseball club since he had arrived from Oriente Province in the east to Havana to try to make his way as a singer. He didn’t, as it turned out–people didn’t like the sound of his voice– and it was only when he was in his 70s that he became famous singing with the Buena Vista Social Club. Previous to that, he’d been earning his dollars shining shoes.
It was a nice interview, and he went so far as to say that it was the best one he’d ever had. What a compliment. Because the Havana Sugar Kings was his favorite béisbal team, I bought two t-shirts—a medium for him, and an XL for his wife. It cost $$$ to send them to his management in Barcelona, but they eventually got to him. That felt good, too.
It’s all the more poignant for me because most of the original stars from the band are no longer with us.
The legendary Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club will perform at the Hollywood Bowl this Wednesday, August 19, bringing back some of their original members onstage for one last performance. Opening for them will be Spanish-born flamenco superstar, Diego El Cigala. Tickets and info here.
Ibrahim Ferrer singing “Mami me Gusto” (Literally “mommy likes me, but it really has another meaning according to my expert friend Betto Arcos, who told me it said “what you did to me baby, I liked it, I liked it.) Many latin songs have double meanings, like here. Note pianist Rubén Gonzalez performing those magnificent piano runs he’s famous for.