In the mid-1990s the US musician Ry Cooder and his colleagues took high-tech recording equipment to Cuba, assembled some old-time Cuban musicians and re-recorded local songs with a twist. The result, the Buena Vista Social Club album, sold over a million copies worldwide upon its release, and was also accompanied by a critically acclaimed film.
The album is readily available online and is a good gateway into the diverse range of musical creations in Cuba, especially the genres of son, bolero and danzón. The album's success owes a lot to the musicality of the songs, and you can easily listen to them and get great pleasure without having a clue what they are singing about. But once you get to grips with the themes, the songs get elevated to a new level. There's everything from love and heartbreak to patriotic sacrifice and stories about house fires that have a cheeky double meaning. Here is a concise breakdown of the lyrics to the songs.
Buena Vista Social Club's most famous songs and their meaning
Chan Chan is the name of the male character of the song. The lyrics are based on an old Cuban folktale and depict how Chan Chan and a woman called Juanica go to the beach to collect sand, which they intend to use to build a house. Chan Chan gets embarrassed as when he puts the sand into a sieve and gives it to Juanica to shake, her whole body shakes at the same time.
The most sung part of the song, "De Alto Cedro voy para Marcané, llego a Cueto voy para Mayarí" simply translates as places where the singer is going in Eastern Cuba: "From Alto Cedro I go towards Marcané, I get to Cueto, head for Mayarí".
Incidentally, for those who think that writing hit songs is a young person's game, Compay Segundo wrote this catchy tune at the grand old age of 77.
De Camino a La Vereda
This song is all about not getting led astray. "De Camino a La Vereda" roughly translates as "moving from the road to the pavement". This song is therefore steeped in moral advice in keeping on the straight and narrow in life.
The last words of the song are about a man who "camina como chévere, ha matado a su madre", meaning he "he walks cool, he has killed his mother". What a bizarre twist to the tale! However, these words should not be taken literally, this is a very old (and no longer used) Cuban expression meaning that one's fine appearance is all a facade. That is to say, someone may look the part, but underneath they lack character.
El Cuarto de Tula
This song is all about how Tula's bedroom ("El Cuarto de Tula") has gone up in flames. It's laced with innuendo, but in such a clever way, including the command to call the fire brigade, that children can happily singalong too and only the adults grasp the double meaning.
This is a romantic song with a tinge of despair at the end. "Dos Gardenias" means two gardenia flowers, and these are being given by the singer to the recipient to show how much he loves and adores that person. However, he then goes on to sing that if the flowers die it's because the flowers know that the recipient has fallen for someone else!
¿Y Tú Qué Has Hecho?
Translating as "And you what have you done?", this song has two short verses. The first verse describes a young girl who carves her name into a tree, and the tree is so moved that it drops a flower. In the second verse, the singer says that he is the tree, and the girl wounded his bark, he will always treasure her name but what has she done with his flower?!
The lyrics here are very melancholic. The title, meaning 20 years, is the theme of the song. She sings how 20 years ago she was the love of this person's life, but now she's history and she can't face the sad change.
Meaning "the cart-driver", this song describes a guajiro, someone from the countryside, driving his cart and working long hours without a break so that one day he will be able to marry. This, he sings, will make him a happy man. He also describes his love of the countryside, is being like the garden of Eden.
"Candela", translating as either candle, flame, light or fire, is a word used a lot in Cuban Spanish
The words to this song, as with "El Cuarto de Tula", are using the notion of fire as an innuendo. The lyrics start describing a cat and a mouse playing music before the singer describes how he is on fire. The lyrics then address more directly how the singer is burning at the sight of a woman dancing and needs the fire brigade to come and put out the fire.
Amor de Loca Juventud
The song title roughly translates as "insane love of youth". He laments how the hope of love that a woman inspired in him is dying. He innocently gave her his soul but concludes that all she wanted from him was the insane love of youth.
Orgullecida roughly translates as "proud", in the feminine form. In the first verse, he sings the part of a woman saying she is proud to be divine, having such beautiful perfections, maybe made of marble, and with pure love. He then sings his part, saying how the volcano of tempting fire will ignite love's jealousies, and that she will conquer his heart as she is the only one for him.
"Murmullo" means whisper or murmur. The lyrics are so short for this song that they speak for themselves: "There is a soft whisper in the silence of a blue night of two lovers bewitched by their love. And life laughs and says: Ahh... And the moon laughs and says: Umm..."
"La Bayamesa" means the woman from Bayamo. The lyrics date back to 1869 and were changed a little for the Buena Vista Social Club version. He sings the story of a woman who decides to burn down her house instead of letting it fall into the hands of the Spanish. It is set in Bayamo as this was the first town to be liberated in the 1868 revolutionary war. The sacrifice the woman makes is triumphantly celebrated in this song: "she brings only goodness and love to mankind".