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The Buena Vista Phenomenon

Tuesday, October 14, 2008 - 02:01 PM

Buena Vista Social Club, the group of elderly Cuban musicians who’d been rescued from obscurity and poverty by a record made almost by accident, has become such a phenomenon that it’s difficult to remember how it all happened. The World Circuit Recording, Ry Cooder’s trip to Cuba (he told us last year that BVSC was not the record he went to Havana to make), the Nonesuch Records release in the States, and then the band’s Carnegie Hall debut, the rave reviews, the Wim Wenders documentary of that concert… the storyline of Buena Vista Social Club is a perfect storm of great playing, enduring music, nostalgia, marketing, and timing. Now, that historic Carnegie Hall concert is being released as a 2-cd set, a reminder of why 8 million of us went and bought this record in the first place.

For me, the greatest thing about BVSC is that it proved the American marketplace wasn’t as parochial as it’s usually made out to be. It becomes a vicious cycle – listeners, the thinking goes, are reluctant to hear music that’s not in English. So the record labels won’t release records that are not in English here in the States, or if they do they market them to the smaller communities of, say, Hispanic listeners or world music listeners. And then American listeners become so used to hearing English as the language of pop that anything else is outside their comfort zone. This is despite ample proof that Americans will respond to good music even if it’s not in English: sunny Brazilian pop in the 60s, German dance rock in the early 80s, even the surprise success of the Bulgarian Women’s Chorus in the late 80s, all showed that we’re not nearly as close-minded as the industry seems to think. I’d like to think BVSC destroyed that sort of thinking, and paved the way for the later American success of world music acts like Cesaria Evora, the Cape Verdian singer, or Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour (both of whom had strong followings in world music circles but then became best-sellers in the general marketplace).

Tell us: Is that wishful thinking? Did Buena Vista Social Club really change something in the way world music is accepted in the American marketplace?

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