It is simply impossible to overstress the enormous influence of Cuban music and its contribution to the development of various genres around the world, from jazz and salsa to the Argentine tango and the Spanish nuevo flamenco.
Known for its extensive blending of diverse styles and rhythms, Cuban music was in return also influenced by popular US music, as in the case of filín, a Cuban fashion of the 1940s and 1950s. Although Cuban jazz had also started in Havana around 1910-1930 it was not until the 1940s that the big band era arrived, owing much to great bandleaders like Armando Romeu Jr. and Damaso Perez Prado.
It was in the 1950s that Benny Moré, widely regarded as the greatest Cuban singer of all time, reached his heyday with his orchestra Banda Gigante (Big Band). Playing at the dance halls La Tropical and El Sierra in Havana, Moré and the group enjoyed immense popularity and went on to tour Venezuela, Jamaica, Haiti, Colombia, Panama, Mexico and the United States, where they performed at the Oscars.
The aftermath of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 saw the closing down of several night clubs and venues for popular music. As a result, many musicians were left without employment and emigrated to Puerto Rico, Florida and New York. Meanwhile in Cuba, artistic activity came increasingly under the control of the socialist regime, and with the movement of nueva trova music started to acquired a more political edge, combining traditional folk elements with often politicized lyrics.
A breakthrough for many legendary local musicians whose performing careers had come to a halt after the rise of Fidel Castro was the release of Buena Vista Social Club (1997). The album was the project of American guitarist and producer Ry Cooder, who visited Havana in 1996 to seek out and record these performers. Wim Wenders also captured the sessions on film, together with sell-out live performances of the group in Amsterdam and New York.
Following the album’s astonishing commercial and critical success, a number of its key performers (including singer Ibrahim Ferrer, guitarist/singer Compay Segundo, pianist Rubén González and trumpeter Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal) set out to record solo albums, despite of their advanced age (all of them had been active in the Cuban music scene since the 1940s-50s).
Fifteen years after the release of Buena Vista Social Club, its reverberations are still felt quite strongly. As a result of its international success, younger audiences across the globe have had the chance to watch and listen live to these extraordinary musicians, while getting to know some of the younger talents of the contemporary Cuban music scene.
It appears, then, that Ry Cooder’s fateful visit to Havana in 1996 managed indeed to rekindle the interest in Cuban tradition, opening a large window for international audiences with a vista to the horizon of Cuban music. A music so rich in its warmth, expression and feeling that surely makes for a most enjoyable view.