To understand the Buena Vista Social Club, you should first picture Havana in the ’40s and ’50s, when the city experienced a great cultural boom and birthed mambo, pachanga, and cha-cha in rapid succession. Then came revolution, restrictions, and governmental crackdowns. The nightclubs and casinos where brilliant artists once frolicked were shut down.
That’s how Ibrahim Ferrer, whom some consider the Cuban Nat King Cole, ended up working as a shoeshiner and how Compay Segundo, a renowned guitarist who favored Panama hats, wound up making a living rolling cigars.
Everything changed in the ’90s, when American musician Ry Cooder rallied these old-timers and created a stellar album that sold millions of copies, led to an equally stellar documentary, and thrust these once-forgotten musicians—some of them in their eighties—to international fame. “No one imagined this project would be so successful,” says Omara Portuondo, an 84-year-old singer and member.
Ferrer, Segundo, and others have passed away, but those who remain stand as monuments to the cultural riches of Havana. Now, with a recently opened Cuban embassy in Washington, the Buena Vista Social Club embarks on its final tour as an ensemble. The group, described by Portuondo as the “ambassadors of Cuban music,” may soon have an official ambassador of its very own.
Tickets, $25 to $50; wolftrap.org.
This article appears in our August 2015 issue of Washingtonian.