BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB At Carnegie Hall (World Circuit/Nonesuch) 

Ten years after the album, the film and the concerts comes the live album, in which the aggregation of senior Cubans takes their music to the heart of American high culture. It’s a lovely record, the ensemble weaving a disciplined, muscular, exotic, multilayered sound, the kind of music you might imagine Santana’s forefathers playing. The relaxed complexity is hardly surprising considering that there are a total of 22 musicians and singers credited, performing in various combinations.

 “Chan Chan” is a textbook definition of the Social Club sound, and “De Camino a la Vereda” flaunts a delightful melodic and rhythmic fluency: starch it up a bit and add a dusting of vein-bulging paranoia and you’re in Talking Heads territory circa side one of “Remain In Light”. It’s on “El Cuarta de Tula”, “Mandinga” and “Candela” that they display the true extent of their astonishing powers: vibrant doesn’t even begin to describe the energy coursing through their apparently unstoppable sound. It’s like, and arguably is, dance music from an alien time and place.                

The cover sticker claims “180-gram Audiophile-Quality Vinyl”, and it does sound very good indeed, albeit like a meticulously mastered and pressed presentation of a less-than-stellar recording. The New York Times concert review reprinted in the (triple!) gatefold makes a glancing reference to problems with the hall’s acoustics, and it does seem as though the focus softens slightly when proceedings get complicated. Petty whinges aside, though, “At Carnegie Hall” is no desiccated museum piece; it’s so alive it practically throbs! I was a little crestfallen, however, on realising that the cover image, a brilliant restaging outside Carnegie Hall of the photograph fronting the Club’s eponymous album, with dark night and electric neon replacing sun-dappled pastels, was actually the product of some judicious cut and pasting.  

BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB Buena Vista Social Club (Classic) 

So, after many months spent enjoying the Buena Vista Social Club’s “At Carnegie Hall” live recording, how different does their album proper sound? Musically, it’s still that rich brew of traditional Cuban fare; creaking acoustic bass, bright, pattering guitar melodies and insistent, shuffling percussion, all given shape and form by the vocal tag teams that perform over them.  It would almost be disingenuous to pick highlights, but since ringleader Ry Cooder has described “Chan Chan” as the Social Club’s calling card I will too; it’s the track that delivers the most potent knockout punch of Buena Vista magic. “Candela” is long and rhythmically insistent; it’s almost like dance music, if it didn’t date from a time when the term might as well have meant ballet.

The most fundamental difference between the two records is the size of the room they have to fill. If the picture across the gatefold is to be believed, the album proper was recorded with the musicians arranged in an oval, in a not overly-large or lavishly equipped studio. No wonder that the music breathes like a living entity; there’s a sense that the musicians, all sitting within eye contact of each other, are bouncing ideas off each other. It’s unadorned and authentic – the piano introduction to “Murmullo”, for example, sounds like it’s being played in a school assembly - old as the hills yet coursing with vitality. The atmosphere is informal and intimate, qualities that, perhaps inevitably, tend to be obscured by the glitz, gloss and glamour of the Carnegie Hall set, which is just as excellent but for different reasons.

Perhaps inevitably given Ry Cooder’s involvement, “Buena Vista Social Club” is immaculately recorded; so well, in fact, that its excellence seems to sneak up on the listener until there comes a point – and for me it was the title track – where you’re suddenly struck dumb in slack-jawed wonder. Classic’s 200 gram vinyl edition is lovingly pressed (which is more than can be said about some of the company’s previous output) and packaged, but lacks any kind of supporting documentation, even at the most basic level of explaining who played and wrote what. Still, there’s always the film, I suppose.