Walking into Egrem Studios near the old section of Havana (known as “Habana Vieja” to the locals) is like traveling back to a bygone era. A musty, spacious loft that more closely resembles an abandoned classroom than a recording studio, this is where Frank Sinatra is said to have dropped in while American gangsters were still in cahoots with the Batista regime, and where Nat “King” Cole made his Spanish-language Cole Español album in the days before the Cuban revolution. It’s also where guitarist and producer Ry Cooder and more than a dozen of Cuba’s finest musicians—many of them long-forgotten at the time—assembled to record the Buena Vista Social Club album in the spring of 1996.
Cooder had come to Havana at the invitation of World Circuit label head Nick Gold to make a recording with Cuban and West African musicians, but the Africans had been held up in Paris. “We figured we would just go ahead with whoever we could find,” he recalls in the 1999 Wim Wenders documentary, made shortly after the release of the album. “So we started asking around. Juan de Marcos [González] helped us out, and pretty soon we had a roomful of people, including Compay Segundo, Eliades Ochoa, Ibrahim Ferrer and Barbarito Torres, who as it turned out was the laoud player on a tape that I’d had since the ‘70s. This was an example of the kind of luck that you have to have—to find out that so many of these people were still alive and well, although forgotten.”
In the opening scenes of the Wenders film, 90-year-old singer and guitarist Compay Segundo is riding in the back of an old American convertible through the streets of Havana, asking local residents, “Where was the Buena Vista Social Club?”—the members’ club where, in the ‘40s and ‘50s, Cuban musicians of all stripes cut their teeth at dances and all-night parties. Many new fans outside of Cuba would ask the same question in earnest when World Circuit/Nonesuch released the album in 1997.
Given his seniority, Segundo was the venerable focal point at the start of the six-day session at Egrem. Inventor of the seven-string armónico guitar, he’d recently written a song called “Chan Chan” (under his given name Francisco Repilado) that became the album’s leadoff track and the unofficial theme of Buena Vista—a loping, countrified son piece that captured the sensual folk roots of his native Santiago. He was joined by fellow singer-guitarist Eliades Ochoa, a younger scion of one of Santiago’s neighboring towns who plays the guajira or “Cuban blues” style.
But no one could have planned for the chemistry that emerged when Ibrahim Ferrer—a soft-spoken bolero singer and practitioner of the Santería religion who hadn’t recorded since the ‘80s—was plucked off the street during one of his daily walks. Along with Omara Portuondo (who got her start in the ‘50s with the vocal group Cuarteto Las D’Aida), jazz pianist Rubén González (who hadn’t played the instrument in 10 years but made up for lost time with a vengeance) and bassist Orlando “Cachaíto” López, Ferrer added an essential flash of energy and vitality to the project. The poignant ballad “Dos Gardenias” and the up-tempo tumbao (rhythmic riff) “Candela” would break him to audiences worldwide.
“Flying back to Los Angeles [after a second round of sessions in 1998 for Ferrer’s solo album],” Cooder recalls in the Wenders film, “I started thinking what a great thing it would be to get everybody together and do a show someplace.” By this time, Buena Vista Social Club had become an international hit, winning a Grammy Award and verging on platinum sales in multiple countries. “The Cubans kept asking me, ‘When are we going to Carnegie Hall?’” Cooder remembers. “I actually never thought it would happen, but a lot of people worked really hard, and on July 1st, we were there.”
The group had already played two monumental shows in Amsterdam in April, but Carnegie Hall was<