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Buena Vista Social Club's At Carnegie Hall Released
Published October 14, 2008

By Tad Hendrickson

Self-titled album commemorates 1998 performance.

It’s always fascinating to listen back to live concert CD or podcast. Hearing the music sets off all sorts of vivid pictures in my head of what I was seeing, feeling and, of course, hearing. The July 1 night this was recorded at Carnegie Hall was one of the most transcendent nights of music I’ll ever likely to experience, still burning bright as a memory 10 years later. It was remarkable that Ry Cooder, Nick Gold and Juan d’Marcos were able to drag so many musicians out of retirement to record at the Egrem studios sessions that made up the self-titled album as well as the Afro-Cuban All-Stars and Ruben Gonzalez albums.


To call the self-titled Beuna Vista Social Club a landmark release is like saying the Beatles were a band from England. It’s been 10 years since the concert and 11 since the albums came out, and most of the major figures are now gone (with Eliades Ochoa and Omara Portuando being the only surviving lead singers). But what an impact this record has made, selling eight million copies world wide and launching a Cuban music craze, which subsequently thawing the chilly relations between the U.S. and Cuba – the success of these musicians literally changed governmental policy here in the U.S. On a musical level, the album has spawned a myriad of solo albums from Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Ochoa, Ruben Gonzalez as well as Omara Portuando and others.


But I remember this once in a lifetime gig (this was one of three public performances the group did together) as an amazing mix of anticipation, tension over having Cuban musicians playing in the U.S., and the chaotic scene out front as music fans, Cuban nationals, public figures of all types showing up to see the concert or try to scalp a ticket.


The band sounded great from the first note, deviating from the versions recorded as it played to the audience. I remember Ibrahim Ferrer shimmying around in his bright red sport coat and dapper cap. I remember Compay Segundo front and center sitting in a chair and in complete command of the stage and hall whenever he sang. Ry Cooder and his son Joachim on percussion were in the back row notable only for their demure composure as the stage vibrated with the energy of the Cubans. There was Omara Portuando strolling out to sing festooned in an elegant black dress and a yellow headwrap, and there was Ochoa with his white cowboy hat perched high on his head. Everyone was in character and playing their role to the hilt. A publicist at the time told me that the group actually practiced together to get ready for the show and one imagines that it was Cooder trying to rein in the characters and keeping them focused on the music.


The 16 tracks spread across the two discs are a treasure. From the opening note of “Chan Chan,” the sound is pristine, the performances fine but loose, sometimes surpassing the studio versions, such as on the swinging version of “Candela.” One thing<