Chan Chan by Buena Vista Social Club

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The love I have for you
is something I cannot deny
I drool all over
I cannot help it Read full Lyrics
This eponymously titled album by the Buena Vista Social Club, released to international acclaim in 1997, was a revolutionary moment for the music world. Neither before nor since has there been a foreign language album that has cut through almost any sense of linguistic or cultural division like a hot knife through butter, flying into almost any cultured CD rack with transparent ease. Rolling Stone ranked Buena Vista Social Club #260 on its "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list (one of only two foreign language albums to make the grade in this prestigious list). Not to mention that it made #1 on all four of Billboard's Heatseekers, Top Latin Albums, Top World Music, and Tropical Albums charts.

"From Alto Cedro I go to Marcané, then to Cueto, I go to Mayarí." This chorus is, quite simply, bragging. The cigar-smoking 90- year-old Cuban composer of "Chan Chan," Compay Segundo, lyrically traverses four small Cuban towns in the Holguin Province, where he was well known and liked. "I've been to Santa Clara-Las Villas province and everybody up there knows it; I've been to Santiago de Cuba y and everybody there knows it too. I go by a school and when a kid sees me, he says, 'Look, it's Compay Segundo,' and starts singing, 'I'm going from Alto Cedro to Marcané then from Cueto, I'm going to Mayarí.'"

The colonial Cuban city of Gibara, with old port buildings
Photo: Marcin Jucha, Dreamstime

After Segundo's travelogue chorus, the song then takes a sudden shift following the fiery lovers, Chan Chan and Juanica, as they sift sand whilst collecting materials for the house they are building. This scene came directly from a story Segundo heard in his childhood in the small Cuban town of Siboney. As for the music, "I didn't compose Chan Chan, I dreamt it. I dream the music," Segundo said in an interview. "I sometimes wake up with a melody on the head, I hear the instruments, all very clear. I look over the balcony and I see nobody, but I hear it as if it was played on the street. I don't know what it was. One day I woke up listening to those four sensible notes, I put them a lyric inspired on a children tale from my childhood, Juanica y Chan Chan, and you see, now it's sung everywhere." The entire piece is deceptively simple, based on four notes, and four chords.

For all listeners, the world of the Buena Vista Social Club opens up through "Chan Chan," a significant gateway to the rest of the album because, well, it's the first song. When the shaker-infused melody starts, hauntingly melancholic and yet unfamiliarly so, the listener is transported into a Hispanic world that is authentically unlike the bossa-nova and salsa flavours that we have become used to associating with this musical genre. And eventually, after enough listens, you realize exactly what it is that is haunting you so persistently throughout the song (and the album): it's Ry Cooder's electric slide guitar.

Out of place in space and time, submerged in the traditional timbres in a way that can only be called "sly," sly Ry's slide whines in and out of consciousness. Clearly, he wanted to be a part of the action, part of the "club," and found the sneakiest way possible of joining in the jam without exposing his rock roots (Ry Cooder has performed with everyone from Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones, to Captain Beefheart). He also is solely responsible for rocketing these unknown Cuban greats to international fame through helping them create a well-produced and marketed album, and then an award-winning documentary in 1999.

When I was a child, "Chan Chan" fascinated me practically from the first listen, and the opening four notes of "Chan Chan" are still enough to fill me with a feeling of almost spiritual warmth. I didn't know much of what was being said back then, but from a brief skim of the notes in the album's ample booklet (which I was already enticed enough to read in the CD shop where I first convinced my father to pay for the album) I knew that Chan Chan was on a Caribbeanesque beach watching Juanica sieve the sand, presumably with lots of provocative quivering, and that Chan Chan was aroused. What scandalous novelty! I must have been pretty enthused and convincing if I managed to squeeze my parsimonious father for the cash to buy this expensive album, something for which I will be forever grateful as this album is now as much a fundamental part of my musical heritage as Abbey Road.

Douglas MacCutcheon
January 24, 2015
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