A Quest for the Perfect Song Vol. 3
Volume III: "Dos Gardenias" - Buena Vista Social Club
In a time before Bad Bunny and a host of other Latin American artists began ruling the airwaves and putting up exceptional streaming numbers, there was little recognition of Spanish-language music in the United States. Some Latin artists like Selena Quintanilla and Gloria Estafan found considerable success as pop stars, but they were pressured to adapt to American styles to gain an audience before releasing their desired music.
Becoming a renowned Latin artist in the U.S. has always been a tall task and many traditional Spanish-language artists have failed time and time again to procure an American audience. However, in recent years, loads of talented singers from Puerto Rico, Mexico, and even Cuba have found a home in the U.S. and have a strong connection with mainstream listeners.
So who was the group that finally broke the mold and gave classic Latin music a proper home in America? A team of elderly, semi-retired Cuban musicians on a mission to re-capture the island's pre-revolution sound.
Named after a long-abandoned and formerly vibrant cultural institution in Old Havana, Buena Vista Social Club was a seasoned all-star team comprised of the greatest musicians on the island.
Assembled by guitarist and former Rolling Stones collaborator Ry Cooder and World Circuit record producer Nick Gold, the group originally consisted of five members, many of whom were prominent musicians of Cuba's musical golden era of the 1940s and '50s.
Many of these artists were musical contemporaries who not only lived but thrived in the same period, yet most of them had never played together. Forming Buena Vista Social Club gave them the chance to make magic with one another, even if they were well into retirement. Still, the album almost never happened at all.
According to a 2017 NPR article, Cooder and Gold were originally scheduled to record a collaboration album with Cuban and West African musicians to show the rich musical connection between the two regions. However, when the African musicians' passports were lost in Burkina Faso, leaving them unable to travel, there was already a team of Cuban musicians and weeks of studio time booked. Unsure of what do next or whether the endeavor would be financially viable, they decided to go all-in and recruit even more old-school musicians for the ensemble.
In the span of a few days, bandleader Juan de Marcos Gonzalez assembled a crew of additional artists for the group's sessions, including vocalist Manuel "Puntillita" Licea and retired singer/part-time shoeshiner Ibrahim Ferrer.
As soon as the entire group was formed, there was immediate chemistry and it was like each member instantly picked up where they'd left off.
Everything about the Buena Vista Social Club sessions in March and April 1996 was absolutely legendary, or so it seems. Being there must've been like witnessing Babe Ruth's called shot in the 1932 World Series or hearing 2Pac record "Hail Mary" in one take; it was something you had to see to believe.
In total, three albums were recorded during the sessions. There was the group's eponymous album "Buena Vista Social Club," Ruben Gonzalez's 1997 solo album "Introducing...Rubén González" and the debut album for the Afro-Cuban All Stars, another excellent Cuban group organized by de Marcos Gonzalez and featuring much of the same lineup as Buena Vista Social Club.
All three albums have their merits and are imperative to Latin music, but none had a more significant impact than "Buena Vista Social Club." Raved by critics and listeners alike to the tune of a platinum plaque, the group's self-titled album is now the second-highest selling Spanish-language album in the U.S. It is easily one of the most monumental albums ever as it undoubtedly introduced worldwide audiences to a host of Latin American classics and newly written marvels.
Countless factors are responsible for this album's unexpected success, but the group's greatest strength was their vast experience, helmed by their three oldest members: guitarist/vocalist Compay Segundo, pianist Rubén González, and tenor Ibrahim Ferrer. At the time of the album's recording, each of them already had extensive music careers and were over the age of 65: Segundo was 89, González was 76 and Ferrer was 69. They were the last remaining experts of their craft and the only connection left to the rich musical history of Cuba's past.
Their role was not only integral due to their skillsets, but because without them the album wouldn't have had a genuine connection to the storied past of Cuban music.
Though the album centers on a distinct era of the nation's sound, it features various genres of Cuban music, spanning from nostalgic styles to vibrant dance anthems. However, the group focused on three genres in particular: son cubano, bolero, and danzón.
The son (pronounced "sone") is an Afro-Cuban style; a perfect mesh between African and Latin American music. A son's Latin elements are characterized by its poetic vocals, lyrical structure, and Cuban tres (guitar). Sons also include a distinct percussion section and call-and-response commentary, both derived from the Bantu peoples of Central Africa. The end result is a beautiful expression that emphasizes intimacy and storytelling, demonstrating the best qualities that each region has to offer.
In addition to the son, the bolero was a popular form of musical storytelling. Bolero is slow-tempo Latin music that includes a dazzling melody and corresponds with the expressive and intimate dance of the same name.
Finally, there is danzón, which is commonly associated with fancy partner dancing, and frequently consists of delicate instrumentals. Danzón melodies are commonly used for passionate and patriotic songs that have forged deep, historical connections with Cuban culture.
At one point, the son was Cuba's most lauded and celebrated musical form but fell out of favor as the country moved towards modernization. Once dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown by Fidel Castro's 26th of July Movement in 1959, newly declared President Manuel Urrutia looked to close all symbols of corruption such as brothels, clubs, and gambling dens.
These places were mainly targeted for their sinful nature, at least in the eyes of the new Cuban regime. Though the government aspired to be an inclusive and colorblind society and began moving towards equality for their Black population, the direct result was the destruction and closure of many artistic landmarks in the Black community.
Soon, musical institutions became a target as well. Numerous nightclubs and dancehalls were shut down, including the Buena Vista Social Club, almost effectively wiping out the venues that had made Havana a mecca for the island's outstanding musicians.
This annihilation of Cuban artistry coincided with a wave of Western influence in every entertainment aspect imaginable. American genres began to influence Cuban music and dancing, leading them away from conventional styles and towards contemporary expectations. Eventually, sons became much less common as pop music and salsa sprouted into the country's most popular genres.
This troubling past for a multitude of distinguished Cuban musicians is why "Buena Vista Social Club" left such an enormous impression, even 23 years later. The abruptly formed collective was able to almost single-handily resurrect a legendary heritage that was just moments away from being forgotten.
Despite this incredible achievement, it's arguable that the group's work had a more significant impact on its individual members than on any listener. The success of "Buena Vista Social Club" subsequently led to a second studio album in 2015, several solo albums from group members, and a live album from their 1998 performance at Carnegie Hall. In addition, two documentaries have been released about the group: one that covers the group's origins ("Buena Vista Social Club") and another that follows the group's original members as they prepare for a farewell concert performance in Havana ("Buena Vista Social Club: Adios"). With each successive record or film, these superb musicians received increasingly overdue exposure though, sadly, it appeared at the twilight of many of their careers.
With an album this stacked, it's nearly impossible to pick a single favorite because each song has incredible qualities and there are 14 amazing songs to choose from. It's hard not to get lost in the album's greatness when listening to the mesmerizing son "De Camino La Vereda," the emotional danzón "Pueblo Nuevo, or the stunningly beautiful "Chan Chan," which Cooder refers to as the group's "calling card." But after lots of thought, I've decided the album's greatest tribute to the music of Old Havana is the romantic and intimate bolero "Dos Gardenias," sung by the great Ibrahim Ferrer.
Prior to joining the group, Ferrer already had an accomplished but vastly underappreciated musical career, which included singing for famed Cuban bandleader Beny Moré and the group Los Bucocos. At 69 years young, Ferrer became the centerpiece for this group of superstars as he assumed the role of the group's bolero soloist.
Originally written by Cuban composer Isolina Carrillo in 1945, "Dos Gardenias" is the gold standard of Latin music and a song that has been covered countless times since it's inception. Ferrer's exceptional rendition not only exposed the song to American audiences but re-introduced traditional Cuban music to a new generation of native listeners, effectively reviving its popularity.
"Dos Gardenias" is an affectionate story of growth and infatuation, and how two delicate flowers represent a budding relationship. It's emotional, romantic, and relatable and Ferrer's gentle demeanor makes him the perfect talent to lead way.
Especially present on this track, Ferrer's greatest quality is his soft and affectionate voice. His gentle melodies are calmingly hypnotic, making each song he appears on a standout of the album. But on "Dos Gardenias," Ferrer ascends to another level like his entire career had built up to this moment.
The song's strong and elegant production is comprised of light piano, percussion, and lovely horns that transform it from a charming hum to a dynamic dance tune.
Once I translated the lyrics, the thing I instantly fixated on is how there's a significant difference in the song's tone from beginning to end. It not only gives the song's story more depth but also increased authenticity because love is not always pretty.
Starting off with the first verse:
"Dos gardenias para ti / Con ellas quiero decir / Te quiero, te adoro, mi vida / Ponles toda tu atención /Porque son tu corazón y el mío"
The song's narrator is saying there are two flowers that express our love, one is for your heart and one is for mine. This is a hopeful and sweet beginning that represents the affection and blissful innocence of a new relationship.
But by the final verse, the feeling has shifted and there's not only doubt but concerns of infidelity, altering the song from a tale of perfect romance to one of unexpected heartbreak.
"Pero si un atardecer /Las gardenias de mi amor se mueren"
"Es porque han adivinado / Que tu amor me ha traicionado / Porque existe otro querer"(x2)
One day if the flowers wither and die, it will be because they can sense his love has been betrayed and his flame's attention has shifted to a new lover. This doesn't necessarily mean the relationship won't last, but their fate is left on a dramatic and uncertain note.
"Dos Gardenias" flawlessly showcases the sound evocative of Cuba's golden age by paying homage to the island's traditional musical styles. Depending on your mood, it is the perfect song to slow dance to with your sweetheart or lament the memory of a love that got away.
If you'd like to learn more about Buena Vista Social Club and their fascinating history, check out their website and their documentary on HBO Max.