Own It or Disown It: #283: Buena Vista Social Club, Buena Vista Social Club


The celebrated landmark album turned twenty years old this month.

The history of the Buena Vista Social Club has been so thoroughly detailed and celebrated with the beloved documentary of the same name that I’m going to go ahead and assume that a good deal if you have some idea of what it was. I’d not be doing my duty if I didn’t go over at least some of its backstory, though, so to recap, the Buena Vista Social Club, titled after a popular club in Havana, is a collection of Cuban musicians who bonded over a love of classic Cuban music. American guitarist Ry Cooder, a fan of their music and story, was the catalyst for both a documentary and this, recorded over the course of seven days in 1996 and released to significant fanfare in 1997. Buena Vista Social Club, then, operates as a time capsule of a place and time many of us will never know, and it’s tempting to celebrate it on those grounds alone, but that’s not how this column works. I don’t care if your album cures cancer; if it sounds like ass, it ain’t getting a passing grade. How does Buena Vista Social Club sound when removed from as much of its historical significance as possible?

Well, that’s a harder question to answer than you might think because, to recap, this is an album of Cuban music made primarily by Cuban musicians that could not possibly be mistaken for anything else. Much of this material is half a century old; one track, “Y Tu Que Has Hecho?”, dates back to the 1920s. I was surprised to learn most of the music here was written by the Club’s members as a healthy amount of it could have passed for centuries-old Spanish standards. Much as I tried, it’s almost impossible to ignore the album’s historical context while listening to it. It’s about as difficult as disregarding all of the circumstances surrounding High Noon—even if you’re blind to its allegory, you know the film is trying to say something.

But, fine, let’s say you’re the average joe who, for whatever reason, decided to pick this up over the latest thing everyone is listening to these days. Would you get anything out of this if you didn’t know a bolero from a descarga? I’m leaning towards “yes”, so long as you’re not expecting a technical masterpiece. Buena Vista Social Club‘s music was recorded live to better capture the spirit of the music, and while I’m usually one who is more for craftsmanship than spirit, it’s impossible to not feel the love the Club feels for their music throughout the album. It’s what binds the music together and gives the album its strength. This is an album that conjures joy, and that’s not a common commodity.

That said, if you have an allergic reaction to Cuban dance music, I suppose there’s nothing for you here. That’s probably the only acceptable excuse for not giving Buena Vista Social Club the time of day. I don’t want to hype this album up as the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it’s a damn infectious work that’d charm a statue. If you don’t like music performed in a language you don’t fully understand or a genre whose key defining terms are completely alien to you, Buena Vista Social Club will show you the error of that line of thinking. Probably. Hopefully.


Read past editions of Own It or Disown It.