A Snapshot of Old Havana and A Forgotten Cuba – Buena Vista Social Club and Afro-Cuban Music

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Ever since I first heard Buena Vista Social Club nearly 20 years ago and saw the Oscar-nominated documentary about the group a few years later, it’s been on my bucket list to see them perform their unique style of Afro-Cuban music live. That was a difficult feat prior to last year when Cuba travel became legal again. Hearing them perform was no small part of my decision to make the journey to Havana.

And as much as I expected from the experience, they delivered even more.

Afro-Cuban Buena Vista Social Club Havana Cuba

Driving to the show in an classic taxi just adds to the feeling of stepping back in time in Havana, Cuba.

The Performance Hall – Cuba in a Nutshell

Many people have asked about traveling to Cuba and what it was like. The long and short of it is this: if you are interested in an unspoiled snapshot of Caribbean life 60 years ago, this is your place.  If you are a casual vacationer expecting a glitzy show, you’d be advised to stay away.

I’ll spend more time on the topic of whether Americans are ready for Cuba and vice versa in a later post. It’s a decadent place that slowly started decaying in the late fifties. And the theater where Buena Vista Social Club performs is a perfect microcosm of that. The beautiful nineteenth century carved-stone building had exposed utilities added since construction. More indicative, there was new construction and repair throughout.

Afro-Cuban Buena Vista Social Club Havana Cuba

The multi-level theatre building is undergoing extensive renovations.

And so it is with the rest of Cuba: beautiful, old, crumbling, and getting just enough repair to avoid disintegration.

Afro-Cuban Buena Vista Social Club Havana Cuba

The entrance to the Sociedad Cultural Rosalia de Castro says a great deal about Cuba and traveling there in general.

Afro-Cuban Buena Vista Social Club Havana Cuba

Grand staircases lead up to the top level where the Buena Vista Social Club performs old-style Afro-Cuban music nightly in Havana.

Buena Vista Social Club and Afro-Cuban Music

The group created a rekindled love for son cubano, the distinctive style of Spanish/African fusion music, two decades earlier. That’s when a group of musicians came out of retirement to record an album to preserve the Afro-Cuban style.

Because of the lingering embargo, these musicians were denied a visa to attend the Academy Awards ceremony when they were nominated for the documentary category in 2000. More recently, a new film documenting Cuban music in general has been released. Buena Vista Social Club: Adios. This new film documents the roots of the distinct sound.

Many of the musicians in the documentary started their careers before the revolution. But the music which seems so at home in the 1950s, has been preserved by newer musicians joining in with the established band. The group, with perhaps 20 people on stage during the opening and closing numbers, had many younger musicians playing. That continuity provides hope the Afro-Cuban style and traditions will continue into the future.

Afro-Cuban Buena Vista Social Club Havana Cuba

The Buena Vista Social Club performs nightly in Havana, Cuba.

Buena Vista Social Club – Live in Havana, Cuba

The show started big with Chan Chan, perhaps the most identifiable song of their vast repertoire. Nearly two dozen performers opened the show. After that, nearly every performer had a featured number with a core band backing them up.

Afro-Cuban Buena Vista Social Club Havana Cuba

Performers strolled throughout the audience as they each performed songs within the show. (Buena Vista Social Club live in Havana, Cuba)

The show ended with a 15-minute rendition of Guantanamera featuring the entire band performing the best-known song in Cuban music.

Afro-Cuban Buena Vista Social Club Havana Cuba

The finale for the Buena Vista Social Club performing live in Havana, Cuba.

The theater was on the top floor of a building with an open roof above a beautiful indoor courtyard. The dancers and singers would stroll around the courtyard while performing. Breaking the fourth wall added a very interesting dimension to the show.

Afro-Cuban Buena Vista Social Club Havana Cuba

The top floor has a grand courtyard. Guests are seated at tables around the perimeter.

Afro-Cuban Buena Vista Social Club Havana Cuba

One of the costumed performers dances through the audience and around the courtyard during a Buena Vista Social Club performance in Havana, Cuba.

If you’re in Havana and you want to relive a grand age of music, you will for sure want to catch this show. If you’re still not sure you want to travel to Cuba, at least get the soundtrack and watch the documentary.  You can also view our live Buena Vista Social Club video clip below (originally posted on Instagram) for a taste of Afro-Cuban music.

Getting There

The Buena Vista Social Club and Afro Cuban All Stars play nightly at the Sociedad Cultural Rosalia de Castro in Havana with a show time of 9:30 pm. Tickets were 30 CUC (around $30 USD each) and included 3 drinks per person. While tickets can be purchased at the door, if still available, visitors may wish to purchase in advance to ensure a seat if visiting on a short stopover. We purchased ours at the travel desk at the Hotel Nacional.

There are also other show iterations around Havana where members of the Buena Vista Social Club make appearances.  It is common to see the Buena Vista Social Club promoted in more than one location nightly.

Afro-Cuban Buena Vista Social Club Havana Cuba

For more information about Cuba and our visit, don’t forget to check out our full report: NCL Sky Havana Nights Cuba Bahamas 2017

About Jim Ogden

Jim is an information technology strategy consultant who has traveled extensively for client projects. Despite having logged many miles for business, it is the personal travel he most values. When traveling for pleasure, Jim prefers to seek out the authentic soul of the places he visits. His favorite travel memories are not of the tourist-friendly areas but rather the places off the beaten-path. As an expat and foodie, Jim brings a perspective of writing based on maximizing the experience of traveling.

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  1. I have yet to make it to Cuba, but would love to visit there sometime. The Performance Hall seems like a wonderful way to have a more “local” experience. Sounds like you had a great time!

  2. That is so cool that you went to the Buena Vista Social Club. I only discovered them a few years back but fell in love right away. I think your description of Cuba is so spot on. So much beauty in it though.

  3. AWESOME! I am known to travel for music so this is right up my alley. And to see such a legendary performance in a place like Havana… that had to have been something!

  4. This sounds like a fun show! I had the best entertainment on my Cuba trip while visiting Santiago. Oh my…was it wild, provocative, and amazing! Such a fabulous place to visit. 😉

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