Strolling through La Habana Vieja, the sound of groups covering “Chan Chan” floats in and out of hotel bars and restaurants as tourists take in the rapidly changing streets, lined with debris and construction trucks developing the area. With its melodic trumpet solo and classic son groove, Buena Vista Social Club’s signature track has been the sonic equivalent of a Cuban cigar since the late 90s, when the group was positioned as the musical guide to traditional Cuban music for those off the island. As with many other aspects of Cuban culture, the years of the embargo shut off U.S.-based audiences to most island artists, leading to the group’s tokenization. Since Buena Vista has always been proud to play older genres and repertoires, many Americans have upheld antiquated ideas of Cuban music, assuming that Cubans only perform son, cha cha, and bolero. While those assumptions have catapulted to the group the international stage, it has also made it difficult for outsiders to make sense of contemporary Cuban hip-hop or electronic fusions.
Much like the streets of Havana, which have experienced change in the past three months (a visit from Obama, a Fast and the Furious film shoot, and the landing of the first cruise ship in decades, the Kardashians, performances from Major Lazer and the Rolling Stones, etc.), the surviving members of Buena Vista Social Club are transitioning too.
On May 15 and 16, 2016, the group – known in its most recent iteration as Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club – played its farewell concert at Teatro Karl Marx in Havana, and like the rest of the island, embraced a new stage, going forth with this set of musicians as Buena Vista All Stars. Maintaining the tradition, the group plans on adding new members and expanding sounds with new instrumentation, creating a 15-piece group that will begin recording and touring with the new name.
We sat down to drink cortaditos and chat with a few members of Buena Vista All Stars about this new stage for the group, the island, and traditional Cuban music. –Luna Olavarría Gallegos
So you all just finished a farewell Ádios Tour. How did that go?
“Guajirito” Mirabal, grandson of trumpet player Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal: Well, it was exactly what it sounded like – a two-year tour to say goodbye to the public, which supported us throughout all these years. It was also for Guajiro, the founder, and everyone who has been in the orchestra for many years. And of course, we still feel supported as we move onto this new chapter as Buena Vista All Stars.
Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal: When we tour, the majority of the places we go to, they can’t understand a single word, but they hear the music and they dance.
Guajirito Mirabal: The energy that we want to transmit through our music, the message, comes across through our love and care for the music.
“There are political changes, but music is going to play a huge factor in that too.”
So what was going through your mind during your last performance at Teatro Karl Marx?
Guajiro Mirabal: I am the founder of Buena Vista, so I felt both really good and sad, but we have to move on.
Alberto “La Noche” Hernández: We have to continue on the journey. Life continues, and music also has to follow. We finished one group but we’re starting another. Music follows this process; it’s a creative process, and the desire to keep the music [alive] just grows.
Gilberto “Papi” Oviedo: The only thing that finished was Buena Vista Social Club, but our music is going to continue as we create in our genres: danzón, cha cha cha, guaracha, all of that.
In what ways are you moving on?
Guajirito Mirabal: We are still delivering traditional Cuban music to all the countries we go to and we want to maintain that same connection between the artists and the message.
Hernández: There’s no difference in sound, or rather, we’re keeping the traditional [sound]. The difference in sound exists fundamentally in the arrangement, which is larger, not like the conjunto.
Guajiro Mirabal: A conjunto is a group; it can have three or four trumpets that play traditional Cuban music. There’s a lot of dance music that uses the bass, and we use the double bass, which is one of the signifiers of the traditional sound.
Hernández: So our [music is] going to remain traditional music. The difference is in the orchestration; that will change the sound.
Who are the members?
Hernández: We have six original members, but we have many more. Fifteen total. And we’re also including more young people. We believe that if a musical group doesn’t have the youth voice, it won’t continue. Young people need to learn this music too, so that it doesn’t die.
We’re really curious to ask about electronic music. There was just a huge music festival called Manana in Santiago de Cuba that brought together many different artists to play sets that revolve around traditional Cuban genres. There are so many young people remixing the sounds of this traditional music with newer electronic sounds.
Hernández: We’re not really familiar with the genre of electronic music, but we respect it. Always respect for every genre. We would like to work together, but for us, talking about electronic music – we don’t know anything.
What about hip-hop?
Hernández: Hip-hop is a really interesting youth movement. Here in Cuba, we have groups like Amenaza, Doble Filo, and Los Aldeanos. But yes, we have a really strong movement, and we’re open to working with those types of artists.
What do you see as the importance of maintaining traditional Cuban music in particular?
Pedro Pablo Gutiérrez: Music, for us, is the roots and the tradition of our country. This group is so important. Our own roots, the roots of the music that we ourselves learned in school [is what] we are performing and showing people.
“We believe that if a musical group doesn’t have the youth voice, it won’t continue.”
In the past few months, there has been a huge rush of change on the island. Being here, so many people keep talking about everything that’s happened recently. How do you see your role in these times?
Guajirito Mirabal: The changes are really favorable for everyone. There are political changes, but music is going to play a huge factor in that too. Our job in the midst of all of it is to continue delivering our message to the United States and the rest of the world. To continue playing our music.
So with this new name, the goals also stay the same?
Guajirito Mirabal: Yes. We’re hoping to begin presenting ourselves to the United States soon, in July or August. Hopefully that will begin our new chapter.
Oviedo: We also want to finally work here in Cuba, and play here for Cubans. We want for the people right here in this country to familiarize themselves with Buena Vista so that the youth can know about this music, too.
Guajirito Mirabal: We want people to know our music. We want to be messengers of our music, which we never want to die. Even if it’s music from the 20s, 30s, 40s, or 50s, our biggest goal is to keep playing. I’m so proud as a young person, and so honored to be able to be right beside these people.