The landmark Buena Vista Social Club concert at Carnegie Hall-July 1, 1998-was both the start of a remarkable story and the culmination of a dream. This one-time-only event elevated veteran Cuban performers like Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzalez, Compay Segundo and Omara Portuondo to long-overdue status as international stars, and it transformed the BVSC's already critically acclaimed album into a commercial juggernaut. Since then, the Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club, recorded at Havana's Egrem Studio by guitarist Ry Cooder, has sold over eight million copies, making it the best-selling world music album ever, and the 'Buena Vista Social Club Presents' imprimatur has come to represent an unwavering mark of quality. The evening also became the dramatic heart of German filmmaker Wim Wenders' popular, Oscar-nominated documentary, also called Buena Vista Social Club. No one who saw it could be unmoved by the sight of an elderly performer like Ferrer taking in the skyscraper vistas of New York City or being overwhelmed by rapturous applause after he sang. This live set, then, is the crucial link to everything that happened before or after the Buena Vista Social Club as a group of musicians and as a brand; it's the album fans have eagerly awaited for a decade.
'With the bittersweet delicacy of a classic bolero,' said The New York Times in a review of the concert, 'the Buena Vista Social Club simultaneously celebrated the vitality and virtuosity of its musicians and mourned the era they embody.' The cultural significance of BVSC's performance was matched by its political momentousness; this concert offered a rare opportunity for these master Cuban musicians, coming together for the first time as a single ensemble, to freely play their classic songs for an American audience. This two-CD set preserves an important, but sadly evanescent, moment when borders and bureaucracies miraculously disappeared in the name of art. As singer Portuondo, who would subsequently embark on her own successful American tour, recalled, 'I felt triumphant seeing how we all worked together as a group, seeing how the music reached the audience...We felt so elated to be able to share our music. All of us had known each other for many years and played together many times, but it was a unique and unrepeatable occasion that our culture and our roots could reach the public through such a beautiful concert with all of us there together on the stage.'
To build awareness and anticipation for the live set, Nonesuch released a digital single of 'Chan Chan,' the concert's opening number and arguably the
BVSC's signature song, on July 1, the 10th anniversary of the concert date. The two-disc package also includes candid, often quite moving, first-person reminiscences from many of the surviving participants about the days-and hours-leading up to the concert and the once-in-a-lifetime experience of the evening itself. As album producer and fellow performer Cooder puts it, 'Listening to the tapes of the concert for the first time in ten years, I'm struck by what an amazing musical event it was. You'll never hear it again, people of this caliber working together. They were dramatic personalities and they're nearly all gone. There's nobody left like that anymore.'