Albums this rich with meaning should not be this easy to listen to. Buena Vista Social Club, a genre-defying record from Cuba released 20 years ago, is old-fashioned and beautiful. It is also, for many, the only picture they have of Cuban music and culture, which many saw as problematic. Buena Vista presented an image of free-wheeling, roaring-twenties, cha-cha clubs, with big-band, mambo jazz groups leading their parishioners in dances celebrating their culture. The album (and the corresponding Wim Wenders documentary) basically ignored 40 years of history.
But the album’s presentation at the time should not detract from the transcendent joy underneath the surface of every song. And while the way foreigners may have distorted Cuban history with how the album was marketed, this was the first time many of these musicians were heard outside of the Cuba. For much of Cuba’s tortured history, artists were oppressed and suppressed like the rest of the country’s people. Buena Vista took older, classic Cuban musicians (like Ibrahim Ferrer and Omar Portuondo) and combined them with the talents of younger, hustling artists. The result is an image, frozen in amber, of Cuba breaking free.