World Circuit Records celebrates 20 years

Winter 2007

The company that brought us Buena Vista Social club is twenty years old. Here, World Circuit records chief, Nick Gold talks to Rob Miller about its ethos and extraordinary success

World Circuit Records is currently celebrating 20 years bringing the best of recorded world music and especially Cuban music to the UK.

It is best known for THAT album released in 1997 - no one could have predicted that Buena Vista Social Club would become a GRAMMY winning, worldwide phenomenon, the best-selling latin music album ever, elevating the artists to superstar status and popularising Cuba’s rich musical heritage, all of which has contributed to a boom in Cuba’s tourist and recording industries.

What are the origins of the Buena Vista Social Club album and what was your role in bringing it together?

The Buena Vista album was an extraordinary collaborative project that spanned four continents (Africa, Europe, North and South America). My original idea was to record a collaboration between two Malian musicians - the guirarist Djeli Madi Tounkara and the ngoni (traditional guitar) player Bassekou Kouyate and the Cubans Eliades Ochoa and Barbarito Torres. I had been aware of these four musicians for a long time and my work in West Africa (especially Mali) where Cuban music is enormously popular convinced me that it was a project that would produce some wonderful music. When I was working with the Cuban group Sierra Maestra in London I discussed the idea with Juan De Marcos Gonzalez and he was very encouraging. At the same time Juan de Marcos told me about a project he had been working on which was to bring together a multi-generational big band in Cuba to pay homage to the great Havana bands of the forties and fifties. We called this project the Afro Cuban All Stars. So we decided to go to Havana and record both of these projects.

I invited Ry Cooder to produce the Mali-Cuba project. The three of us then did a lot of research work preparing for the recordings. Eventually I arrived in Havana with my engineer Jerry Boys and we went to the Egrem Studios in Central Havana. Juan de Marcos had assembled the most extraordinary group of musicians I had ever witnessed in a single room. The older generation included Ruben Gonzalez on piano, Cachaito Lopez on bass, Guajiro Mirabal on trumpet and the singers Manuel Licea, Raul Planas and Pio Leyva. The younger generation included the great Miguel Anga Diaz on congas. It was clear that Juan de Marcos had done a huge amount of work and we started recording immediately with everyone well rehearsed on a group of new songs and new arrangements of classic Cuban repertoire.

During the week of recording this album I received news that the Africans would not be able to come to Cuba because their passports had been lost. So rather than abandon the project we started to recruit members of the Afro-Cuban All Stars to play on the second project. Ry Cooder arrived after the Afro Cuban All Stars album had been completed and together with Juan de Marcos we added Omara Portuondo, Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer to our line up of musicians. Then over the next week, with Ry Cooder producing, we recorded the album that became the Buena Vista Social Club.

One of the songs we recorded was the danzon Buena Vista Social Club and I thought the title summed up the atmosphere of the sessions very well - it was like a social club where all the members were great, great musicians but the atmosphere was devoid of ego, just great players getting together to play the music that they had crafted so well over the years. After we had completed the Buena Vista Social Club album we had two days remaining in the studio and in these we recorded a complete album by the great Ruben Gonzalez.

We realised that we had recorded some truly beautiful and inspirational music and we worked very hard to present it to the best of our ability. We spent many weeks mixing and re-mixing the recordings to bring out the beauty of the music and we made sure the CDs were packaged beautifully. We provided journalists with biographies and photographs of the musicians and we also arranged for a number of journalists to visit Havana to meet the musicians and see the environment in which the music was created.

After the records were released we worked to get the musicians concert touring to show the world a more complete picture of this wonderful music. Tours were organised throughout Europe and we also organised special concerts in Amsterdam and in New York’s Carnegie Hall, which featured the complete line-up of musicians from the Buena Vista album.

Wim Wenders became interested in the projects and he made a documentary film, shooting in Havana, Amsterdam and New York. After the Win Wenders documentary was released the musicians continued touring but on a greater scale and into countries such as Japan, Mexico, Brazil, USA as well as Europe.

We continued to work in this way recording individual albums with Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Ruben Gonzalez, Guajiro Mirabal and also some innovatory forward looking projects with the Afro Cuban All Stars, Cachaito Lopez and Miguel Anga Diaz.

You have worked in world music for over 20 years now. What makes Cuban music so special?

There are many aspects that make Cuban music so special to me. There is an extraordinary variety and depth to Cuban music and the musicians I have worked with have a deep wisdom and understanding as well as love of their music and its history. I have been extremely impressed by the technical level of musicianship and also the desire to innovate and not to stand still. There is a very high regard for ensemble playing and a great deal of support amongst the musicians and they are always ready to listen and experiment. They have a high regard for their peers and the heroes of the past and a deep pride in their country’s music, which they value above all others. The music has it all: wonderful melodies, a matchless rhythm, great musicianship, intelligence, as well as a great sense of humour.

I know you have been to Cuba many times. Apart from the music are there any other aspects of Cuban society that have made an impression on you?

Aspects that always impress on a visit to Cuba are the friendliness and hospitality of the people, their sense of community and the very high level of education.

You recently donated £10,000 to the charity The Music Fund for Cuba, as well as thanking you, on behalf of the charity, can I ask why you made this donation?

I know that The Music Fund for Cuba channels the money it raises directly into the Cuban music community. I was really impressed with the project to renovate the Teatro Miramar and hope that one day we will see the theatre fully operational again. It is an honour to be able to contribute in some way to this.

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