Inside the Afro-Cuban All Stars’ Debut Album and Their Legendary Recording Sessions

Afro Cuban All Stars

Ever since its release in 1996, Buena Vista Social Club has played an integral role in reintroducing the world to Cuban music. But while it’s a crucial entry in Latin music history, the story of Buena Vista Social Club actually begins with a different album—A Toda Cuba le Gusta, by the Afro-Cuban All Starsand a legendary two-week recording session in Havana.

In 1994, Juan de Marcos González and his band Sierra Maestra released Dundunbanza! on World Circuit Recordings. Grounded in son, the rhythmic foundation of Cuban music, Dundunbanza! is heavily influenced by Arsenio Rodríguez, who was a key player in the development of modern Cuban dance music. González’s father, Marcos, was also a musician who played with Arsenio. González grew up listening to their music and had always wanted to record an album with the older musicians that had been so influential to him. “All my life I wanted to make a tribute to my daddy by using the music of the great period of the ‘50s and using some of his friends that were still alive,” says González.

That opportunity presented itself when González was in London to promote Dundunbanza! and met up with his friend Nick Gold of World Circuit Recordings for a drink. “We’re having a beer and Nick told me that he wanted to make a Cuban jam album,” González remembers. “I told him I had been wanting to make that type of an album with a Cuban big band.”

After some discussion, the idea was to bring Cuban and West African musicians to Havana and record an album. To help bring the project together, González and Gold reached out to American guitarist and record producer Ry Cooder. Cooder had previously worked with World Circuit on Ali Farka Touré’s 1994 album, Talking Timbuktu. But there were issues obtaining visas, and the West African musicians couldn’t make the trip to Cuba. Unable to bring everyone together, the focus of the project changed. Now, the plan was to make an album centered on the Cuban dance music of the mid-20th century. Yet as González and Gold were strategizing, it became clear that just one album wouldn’t be enough.

“We decided the first album should be the music of [the] ‘50s, which is the golden period of Cuban music, where we really exploded as a nation,” González says. This was the faster-paced dance music of pre-revolutionary Cuba, when Havana night clubs, bars, and hotels were packed with tourists and mafiosos. That record would become the Afro-Cuban All Stars’ landmark debut, A Toda Cuba le Gusta.

The second album, which became Buena Vista Social Club, would feature the acoustic folk music of east Cuba from the ‘20s and ‘30s. This was the music of the Cuban countryside that praised the island’s natural beauty, spread local gossip, and encouraged people to dance late into the night.

Enough music would eventually be recorded that a third album, pianist Rubén González’s opus, Introducing…Rubén González, was also released.

During pre-production, Juan de Marcos González returned to Cuba with his wife Gilcéria, who took the lead in searching for the veteran musicians who had played alongside González’s father in the nightclubs of Havana. But the popular Cuban music had changed dramatically over the years, and “the old guys were absolutely forgotten,” González says. “Most of them had retired, and when you get old, people don’t take care of you unless you were a big star.”

A project of this magnitude is no small task from a production standpoint. For Gold, it was González’s “energy, enthusiasm, and never say ‘never’ approach” that got the music off the ground. “There were doubters around us,” Gold says. “The logistics of recording with a lot of musicians in Havana weren’t easy at the time, but Juan de Marcos and his wife Glicéria worked so hard to make difficulties invisible to us.”

Some of the players González and his wife contacted included pianist Rubén González, bassist Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez, vocalists Ibrahim Ferrer, Félix Baloy and Omara Portuondo, and guitarist Compay Segundo. By March 1996 everything was set, and it was time to record at the legendary EGREM studios.

Located in Havana, EGREM is the national record label of Cuba. All of the great Cuban musicians have come through EGREM’s studio at some point. (Legendary singer Nat King Cole had recorded there as well.) What ensued was a mammoth two-week recording session that has become known as the Buena Vista Sessions. Recorded live to tape, it gave older musicians like Segundo,  Ferrer, and Rubén González a chance to play music again and connect with long-lost friends. For younger musicians like Juan de Marcos González, it was an opportunity to play alongside his idols.

“Recording at EGREM was a brilliant moment,” remembers González. “It wasn’t difficult to put all the guys together. They wanted to work. If you are a musician, you are never retired. You want to be on stage because this is what you’ve done all your life. The older guys were all together for the first time after all these years and there were positive vibrations in the studio.”  

For Gold, it was a whirlwind experience. “We recorded A Toda Cuba La Gusta, Buena Vista Social Club, and Rubén González’s debut album in two weeks. It was a full-on wide-eyed 24-hour-a-day grade-A masterclass,” he says. “The whole thing went by very fast, but I remember listening back to what we’d recorded at the end of that first day. The musicians had gone home, and I sat with Ry [Cooder] and our engineer, Jerry Boys, in the control room. We had a playback session and it was all there! That amazing sound was intact. We hadn’t imagined it or exaggerated it. So beautiful. We left the studio that night itching to get back the next morning.”   

This fall, World Circuit will re-release A Toda Cuba le Gusta, the celebrated debut album by the Afro-Cuban All Stars. Remastered from the original analog tapes from the Buena Vista Sessions, A Toda Cuba le Gusta is a high-energy history lesson in the sultry, irresistible rumba, guajira, and chachachá dance patterns prevalent throughout Havana nightclubs in the 1940s and ‘50s.

Juan de Marcos González remembers the experience of the Buena Vista Sessions fondly. When asked about how A Toda Cuba le Gusta was compiled, he points to the record’s eighth track, “María Caracoles.” Opening with an extended percussion solo, the song explodes into a mozambique groove propelled by the rhythm section and searing horn stabs. Featuring Ibrahim Ferrer, one of the most well-known Buena Vista vocalists, “María” is a definite standout that captures the synergy and “positive vibrations” of the Buena Vista Sessions.

“I brought Ibrahim to the studio and it was the first time he recorded that song,” recalls González. “He took a look at the music and then we started recording. It was only one take. One take. Everybody was together. It was a special moment when we recorded that song.”

A Toda Cuba le Gusta and the other albums that came out of those two weeks at EGREM reintroduced the world to Cuban music. This would lead to more recording sessions, solo albums, GRAMMY awards, a documentary, and worldwide tours. For Juan de Marcos González, he’s continued to share the music of the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Buena Vista Social Club with audiences all over the globe.

Looking back on A Toda Cuba le Gusta and the overall legacy he helped build, González is clear about what the Buena Vista Sessions meant from a political standpoint.

“Cuba went through the crash of the communist countries in Europe and then we had everybody turning their eyes to us expecting the end of the Castro era,” says González. “The Buena Vista Sessions were the first time Cubans and Americans worked together on a project, which was kind of a taboo at that time.”

González is still energized by what that two-week period at EGREM studios meant for the musicians he grew up idolizing. “I’m so happy that the old guys were successful, because what we did was based around them,” he says. “The old guys were the main characters of the recording sessions, and they were so good. Now I’m the old guy. I’m so happy to be the old guy.”

-Gus Navarro

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