The son and bolero master vocalist had a fabled entrance into this world: he was born in Santiago in 1927 at a social club dance. He began his career in the early 1940s with local musical outfits in Santiago. Like most musicians, he had a succession of “day gigs” to make ends meet, jamming by night. In the 50s, he was the lead vocalist for bandleader Pacho Alonso, and also sang for the legendary Beny Moré. At the time of the Buena Vista sessions, Ferrer was living in a decaying apartment in Old Havana; like many of the Buena Vista elders, Ferrer was in semi-retirement, occasionally shining shoes for money. Juan de Marcos González found him taking his daily stroll on the streets of Havana—and the rest is, as they say, history.
Over his more than five decades in music, Rubén González has played with many of the great ones (including stints with Mongo Santamaría and Arsenio Rodríguez) and is himself a legend, universally regarded as one of the pioneers of Afro-Cuban piano style. In his youth, he attended medical school, thinking that he’d be a doctor by day and a musician at night, but he left school for his first love, the piano. In the forties and fifties, he was one of a trio of virtuoso pianists (with Luis ‘Lili’ Martínez and Percuchín) who helped lay the foundation for the mambo by marrying African rhythms with the freedom of American jazz improvisation. In the 1960s, González joined Enrique Jorrín (the creator of the cha-cha-cha), performing with the legendary bandleader until Jorrín’s death in the mid-80s, and ‘retired’ shortly thereafter. He led a quiet life in Havana until Buena Vista producer Juan de Marcos González dragged him down to EGREM Studios for the now-legendary recording sessions.
The elder statesman of Afro-Cuban music, Compay Segundo (born Francisco Repilado) lived most of the 20th century and is charging into the 21st at 90 years young. His nickname comes from the Cuban slang for “compadre” and his sweet “second voice,” or bass harmony vocals. Segundo was born in Siboney and raised in Santiago, Cuba’s eastern provincial capital and the birthplace of Cuban son. In his formative years, he made a living by working in the tobacco fields and by cutting hair; at night, he’d hang at the local hotspots. At the age of fifteen he composed his first song, “Yo bengo aquí” and was already an accomplished guitar and tres player. He was also an excellent clarinetist, and invented his own instrument, the armónico, a seven-string hybrid between a guitar and a tres.. In the 20s and 30s, he played with some of the best bands of the era, including Nico Saquitos Quintero’s Cuban Stars, the Municipal Band of Havana, Justa García’s Cuarteto Hatuey and Conjunto Matamoros. In the 40s, Segundo gained fame as one half of the Los Compadres duo with Lorenzo Hierrezuelo. In the 50s, he formed Compay Segundo and his Muchachos, a group that plays to this very day. Compay Segundo is the very embodiment of the combination of innovation and tradition that is at the heart of modern Cuban music.
Omara Portuondo's family history is a romantic New World saga. Her mother was born into a rich Spanish family and was expected to marry within her social caste, but instead eloped with a Cuban baseball player—a black man. Omara began her show business career as a dancer at the fabled Tropicana in Havana. With her sister Haydeé and others, she formed a female vocal quartet, Cuarteto Las D’Aida in the early 50s, a group that achieved widespread acclaim and remained together for fifteen years. Omara loved both American jazz (early in her career, she worked with Nat King Cole) and the romantic legacy of Cuban music—coming to be known as the “fianceé of feeling.”
While her sister went into exile in the U.S., Omara remained in Cuba, lending her vocal talents to numerous bands, as well as cutting several albums. Ry Cooder met her in Havana before the sessions for Buena Vista, and the following year, during the legendary sessions, Omara happened to be recording at EGREM Studios at the same time. Cooder immediately enlisted her for the project, setting up her memorable collaborations with Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo. Because of the success of the Buena Vista projects, Portuondo has had a hectic, international touring schedule, but she also continues to perform at her favorite spots in Havana.
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