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Jun 19, 2009

Dedication, preparation, promotion—all necessary, but not sufficient. Sometimes a hit just…happens.

By Tara Kyle

For most of that morning in 1996, Ibrahim Ferrer—part-time shoeshine man, lifelong bolero singer—just hung around the house, “cleaning my shoes, doing nothing.” Sixty-nine years old, living hand to mouth in Havana, he spent a lot of his days that way. This one would be different.
Everything started to change when his wife told him she heard someone was looking for him. That someone turned out to be Juan de Marcos Gónzalez, director of Sierra Maestra. Before the day was out, Ferrer was working with him on the record that would be the seed for Buena Vista Social Club, the best selling world-music album of all time.
Even executives at Nonesuch sometimes ask themselves: how did that happen?
How is it that the imagination of the listening public can be suddenly captured by a bunch of aging Cuban musicians? Or, for that matter, by a Polish avant-garde composer’s symphony about the Holocaust (Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3). Or by a group of Bulgarian women in folk costume singing a cappella (the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir, whose album was aptly titled Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares)?
These are among Nonesuch’s greatest hits, and the company cannot answer the question. There are many answers, and none of them is quite satisfying.
When the musicians and singers of Buena Vista Social Club came on the scene in 1997, Billboard’s top hits ranged from Hanson’s “MMMBop” to Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems” to the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe.”
What space was left for a few old Cuban musicians who for decades had been entertaining mostly themselves and each other, isolated from the world by Fidel Castro’s restrictive travel policies?
When the group started, keyboardist Rubén González, who was 84 when he died in 2003, no longer even owned his own piano.
The godsend for Buena Vista was legendary blues guitarist Ry Cooder, who was renowned in part for his session work with the likes of Johnny Cash, Neil Young and The Rolling Stones.
Teaming up with acclaimed world-music producer Nick Gold, he went to Cuba hoping to pair up African and Cuban musicians. When the Africans could not gain entry to Cuba, Cooder concentrated his attention on the locals, recruiting vocalist Compay Segundo and guitarist Eliades Ochoa, among others.

Surprise is Not An Accident

The group took its name from a members-only club popular in the pre-revolutionary Havana of the 1940s. Their songs, too, were throwbacks to the romanticized decades of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, a repertoire steered in part by Cooder and Gold.
They were expected to be a small, niche act, and Nonesuch was happy with the critical acclaim and respectable sales of their first year.
But then, in April 1998, David Bither attended a Buena Vista concert in Amsterdam. Overwhelmed by what he calls an “incredible, emotional experience,” he decided to spend $100,000—a fortune for Nonesuch—to sponsor a concert at Carnegie Hall.
That concert helped the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon extend beyond music. The group became the centerpiece of a documentary film of the same name, directed by German auteur Wim Wenders.
Wenders, who learned about the Cuban musicians through his work with Cooder on the movie The End of Violence, filmed them in Cuba and on a trip to New York, where he captured their bittersweet wonder in seeing a new world unfold before their eyes.
For several of the group’s biggest talents, that journey didn’t end with the album. Several went on to successful solo careers with Nonesuch, inspiring other artists by breaking not only national but also age barriers.
And while Buena Vista Social Club sold an above-expectations 300,000 copies in the U.S. prior to Wenders’s film release, today, that number is north of two million, with global sales of around eight million.
One moral of the story of Buena Vista—like that of Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 and Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares—is that even the biggest surprise hit requires nurturing, not to mention decades of dedicated musicianship.
As Bither puts it, “it’s not all about the sensation of the moment.”

Breakthrough Symphony

The lamentations of Polish composer Henryk Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 refer to the Holocaust and a mother’s heartbreak.

Górecki, a veteran of the Polish avant-garde who was born in 1933, wrote the piece in 1976. Also known as Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, it was part of his movement away from dissonance, serialism and sonorism toward a more minimalistic style.
The symphony’s three movements tell three stories. The first deals with the Virgin Mary’s lament at the foot of Jesus’s cross. The third, adapted from a Polish folksong, recounts a mother’s search for a son killed in the Silesian uprisings against Weimar Germany.
What paved the way for the symphony’s recording in 1992, with Grammy Award-winner Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonetta, was the ravishingly beautiful second movement. A memorial to Polish victims of the Holocaust, it is based on the message that teenaged prisoner Helena Wanda Blazusiakowna scrawled on the wall of her cell in a Nazi prison, a prayer and a plea to her mother not to cry for her.
The recording ultimately sold over a million copies, a staggering figure in contemporary classical music.

Backbeat-free Bulgarians

Folksy a cappella from an overlooked corner of the Balkans hit the big time with Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares.
Indigenous folk music is a hard sell, indigenous folk music from Bulgaria is a really hard sell and the idea of trying to market indigenous Bulgarian folk music—sung a cappella—sounds like some kind of music-industry black humor.
And yet…there is Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, an album by the Bulgarian State Television Female Vocal Choir.
Initially created in 1951 by Bulgarian composer Philip Koutev and nationalized by the Communist authorities a year later, the group did not receive international attention until Swiss producer Marcel Cellier packaged their first release in 1975.
They made a much greater impact a decade later. In 1987, the album found a cult following in the U.S. and Britain, setting the stage for the broader success of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares, Vol. II.
The second volume’s late-1988 release coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and increased attention to the new world behind the old Iron Curtain.
After that, the Bulgarian dames were everywhere, winning a Grammy Award in 1990 and a second nomination in 1994. They appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman” and Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion,” and they did cameos on film soundtracks and television commercials.
Their music was based on odd rhythms, dissonant harmonies and vocal gymnastics, reflecting Bulgaria’s position squeezed between the Christian and Islamic worlds. The meaning of their songs remained somewhat obscure to fans, since no published translations of lyrics accompanied their releases.
Fifteen years later, they’ve faded a bit from popular consciousness. But they continue to tour and reach new milestones—including an appearance last year in the most youthful of new media: the soundtrack of Atari’s “Alone in the Dark” video game.


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