Buena Vista Social Club brings classic Cuban sound to Minnesota

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Omara Portuondo
Cuban singer Omara Portuondo performed with the Buena Vista Social Club at the Plaza de Toros Mexico in Mexico City in 2011.
Alexandre Meneghini/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Buena Vista Social Club took traditional Cuban music off the island and made it worldwide cool.

Sessions by the collective became an artistic and commercial phenomenon in the late 1990s. An album and documentary turned singer and guitarist Compay Segundo, pianist Ruben Gonzalez, Ibrahim Ferrer and others into international stars.

Some of the original performers have passed away. But the music — an earthy mix of Spanish guitar, African rhythms and percussion known as "son" — continues to thrill. And the Buena Vista Social Club, infused with youthful energy, is still going strong. On Wednesday, the ensemble brings its classic Cuban songs to the Burnsville Performing Arts Center.

"Music is an international language, even if you don't understand Spanish," singer Omara Portuondo, an original Buena Vista member, said recently from California.

"We have music in our repertoire that is from the '30s and '40s, and some from later eras," Portuondo said. "What's important are our roots, to keep our traditional music and maintain it. Up to now we've always been very well received and young people also tell us that they embrace our music because it's culture."

Whether singing ageless ballads or vibrant up-tempo classics like "El Cuarto de Tula" or "Candela," their graceful delivery of timeless melodies transports audiences to the Cuba of the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

Isolated in Cuba, though, the music was largely unknown outside of the Spanish-speaking world.

That changed in 1996 when producer Nick Gold and guitarist Ry Cooder planned a West African and Cuban guitar collaboration. When the African musicians could not travel to Havana, Cuban band leader Juan de Marcos Gonzalez introduced Gold and Cooder to voices from the golden era of Cuban music. It led to sessions that brought together some of the greats of Cuban music. Released in 1997, the album took off and its popularity exploded with the release of a Buena Vista Social Club documentary.

Portuondo said the musicians are still thrilled by the warm receptions they receive from people everywhere.

Eliades Ochoa and Manuel Galban
Eliades Ochoa, left, and Manuel Galban of the group "Buena Vista Social Club" perform at The Karl Marx Theatre in 2003 in Havana. Galban died in 2011.
Jorge Rey/Getty Images

"We spend a lot of time traveling in North America, Europe and Japan," she said. "We were in Japan before coming here. And we're always very well recognized and applauded. We're very proud of that."

Segundo, Gonzalez, Ferrer, bassist Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, guitarist Manuel Galban and violinist Pedro Depestre Gonzalez passed away in recent years.

But the band still has a strong core of original members in Portuondo, trumpeter Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal, guitarist Eliades Ochoa and laud player Barbarito Torres. Trombonist and vocalist Jesus "Aguaje" Ramos leads the band.

People who go to the concert in Burnsville on Wednesday can expect to see and hear an elegant and lively musical conversation between old friends.

Although the band plays music that is nearly a century old, its renditions still inspire worldwide audiences and those in Cuba, where anyone walking down a city street is more likely to hear the rapid beat of "reggaeton," the rap and dance music that has taken the island by storm.

Young Cubans are fond of wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the face of Don Omar, one of Puerto Rico's most recognized reggaeton stars. Even Cuban "timba," the fiery dance music made popular by modern Cuban bands like Los Van Van and NG La Banda, has taken a back seat.

But the Buena Vista Social Club still attracts an audience on the island. The group now includes younger musicians who come to it with a great deal of knowledge about the music. Among them is pianist Rolando Luna, a devotee of his predecessor Gonzalez.

The band's fans also know the music well. Portuondo said many are quick to request numbers that express the joy and challenges of daily life — the essence of Cuban son.

"Music is the soul of the people, as our national poet, Jose Marti said. And music is to be enjoyed and even to share sadness, as does the song 'Dos Gardenias' that I sang with Ibrahim," she said. "Audiences ask for that song a lot and it's part of our show."

If You Go:

WHERE: Burnsville Performing Arts Center, 12600 Nicollett Ave., Burnsville, Minn.
WHEN: 8 p.m., Wednesday
More information at: http://www.burnsvillepac.com/