What nobody ever told you about the expert musicians of the now-famous Buena Vista Social Club (BVSC) is that they are among a group of Cuban music super heroes. Yes, when they showed up to America with sidekick Ry Cooder, they looked like elder veterans stepping out of a past era and into the bright lights of New York. But each artist possesses a superpower which you can witness on the ongoing Cuban Essentials series.
Escondida Music has unearthed these super heroes’ best songs from the underexposed, historic treasure trove of Cuban recording giant EGREM, whose library emerged in the art deco jukebox days of the 1940s and rode the wave of the mambo and cha-cha-cha boom of the 1950s. With 7000 master recordings, this “Motown of Cuba” has the most extensive collection recorded on the island, going back 60 years. While Ry Cooder came to EGREM’s 1950s-vintage studios to record the BVSC sessions, Cuban Essentials travels back in time to uncover the best historic recordings made by the likes of Ibrahím Ferrer, Rubén González, Omara Portuondo, Elíades Ochoa, and Compay Segundo. And while the music may have needed Cooder’s infrastructure to reach new American fans, its essence was already recorded with sapphire needles in a safe house shrouded in a Kryptonite-like cultural embargo.
Ibrahim Ferrer’s superpower is his rum-flavored voice which makes you dance and forget the pains of love. Though he passed away in August 2005, Ferrer’s voice lives on infinitely, another magical feat. Rubén González—who introduced the piano into the son ensemble in the 1940s—had magical fingers that melted the mechanics of every piano into fluid sound waves that hit directly in the soul. Though time took him in 2003, González prevailed over his other nemesis, the termites that attacked his piano before he re-emerged in the 1990s. Omara Portuondo fights evil with her superhuman ability to express feeling beyond words. Eliádes Ochoa is the wise man who draws upon rural farmer traditions to offer a musical home remedy for the soul. Compay Segundo was capable of stepping in and out of films at will and once even summoned the Pope’s personal airplane to play his famous Chan Chan at the Vatican.
If you have yet to figure out where to go after the BVSC recordings, Cuban Essentials solves the problem with “Best of” compilations featuring material rarely available to American fans. EGREM made painstaking efforts to work with prominent Cuban music historians, musicologists, and journalists on the track selections and liner notes for Cuban Essentials. After the songs were chosen, care was taken to ensure that Cuban Essentials would have top-quality fidelity levels.
But Cuban Essentials calls on fans to take one step further into Cuban music with individual titles featuring: The Wild Man of Rhythm, Benny Moré, who without reading a note of music would cast spells on the musicians under his direction; Chucho Valdez, who was born attached to a piano, and whose father, Bebo Valdez, raised him among a pack of Cuban greats; Irakere, the super heroes of retro who had Cuba’s first disco hit and whose songs are still wildly popular on Cuban retro dancefloors; Los Van Van led by Juan Formell, the mind-reader of the people, who never lost touch with the streets and is known for inventing words that capture the soul of the people. Rounding out the series is Guantanamera, featuring other characters from this adventure known as Cuban music history.
The hip CD covers take on a style that was popular in the Cuban movie posters of the 1960s and ’70s,