I can't think of a contemporary band that could convincingly carry on after losing three of its most talented members. But legendary Cuban supergroup Buena Vista Social Club have done exactly that and seem to be doing so with ease. The prodigious skills and larger-than-life personalities of Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer and Rubén González helped to define Buena Vista Social Club's image and sound. After the trio's passing in the mid-2000s the group called on its deep reserves of talent and reformed as a touring unit under the name Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club.
The current 15-member lineup features four important artists from the original Buena Vista roster.
Omara Portuonda is known as the grand old lady of Cuban music. While her early recordings made her a star in Cuba, her participation in the the Buena Vista Social Club project brought her to international attention and established her reputation as one of Cuba's greatest musical ambassadors.
Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal's distinctive musicianship have earned him the title as "the trumpet of Cuba." Throughout the '40s and '50s Mirabal played in many of Cuba's most popular bands, but didn't make his solo recording debut until 2004 at age 71. The self-titled album is a brilliant tribute to Cuban music icon Arsenio Rodriguez.
Eliades Ochoa is a master of the Cuban son style of music and a distinctive presence in the band with his trademark cowboy hat and unique harmonic guitar, a tres with added D and G strings.
And then, there's Barbarito Torres, a master of the laúd, a Cuban variation on the traditional Spanish lute. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Torres in advance of Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club's upcoming Indianapolis appearance.
"I began to play the laúd at 10 years old," he said. "My first contact with the laúd was through the music of the local campesinos or farmers. The laúd is traditionally the leading instrument in guajiro music, which is the music of the Cuban countryside."
Torres quickly mastered the instrument and began playing professionally at an early age.
"I started my career in my hometown Matanzas," he said. "I joined my first group Serenata Yumunina in 1970. I was 14 years old. We became known for our music broadcasts on the local station Radio 26."
While still a teenager Torres moved on to lead his own ensemble.
"After Serenata Yumunina, I started my own group Cuarteto Tradicional Matancero and I became the band's musical director."
After a brief interruption, Torres would soon make a move to Havana and join the ranks of the country's most prestigious musicians.
"In 1973, I went off to serve in the armed forces," Torres said. "But I continued to play in Latin American music groups during that time. After my release from the army, I eventually traveled to Havana and began playing campesina music there. I was playing on television and recording with many groups. Eventually I had an opportunity to join Grupo Manguaré, which is one of the most renowned music groups in Cuba. They formed in 1971, and they still continue to play. They've been recording campesina music for a long time and they were one of the first groups to establish the popularity of campesina and guajira music."
While in Havana Torres' musical virtuosity continued to open up big opportunities for him. He spent several years in the band of campesina music icon Celina González and became a member of Cuban supergroup The Afro Cuban All Stars.
These musical experiences eventually led Torres to what would become the defining moment in his music career.
"I started with Buena Vista in 1996," Torres said. "The band was multi-generational and it gave me an opportunity to meet and record with important musicians who were much older than me, like Compay Segundo, Rubén González, Ibrahim Ferrer and Cachao. I was one of the youngest members of the group at that time."
The project exceeded Torres' wildest expectations and gave him a chance to develop his solo career on the global stage.
"The album became a worldwide success, and the documentary film added to our popularity," Torres said. "The success of Buena Vista gave me an opportunity to have my first international solo release Havana Cafe in 1999 and the follow-up Barbarito Torres in 2003."
Thanks to Artur Silva for his help translating this interview.