Compay Segundo, Buena Vista Social Club, 1998 © Geraint Lewis

Just over 20 years ago, we were introduced to the romantic sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club. It was an unlikely group of stars – mostly elderly musicians from Cuba playing very old-fashioned music. But when the group's debut album was released in 1997, it wound up selling millions of records around the world.

Buena Vista Social Club's 1997 Album Cover

Buena Vista Social Club started out as a very different album from the one you know. The previous year, British record producer Nick Gold and American guitarist Ry Cooder had the idea to show the connections between Cuban and West African music. They arranged for a group of musicians from Mali to record in Havana with musicians from the island. But Gold says that, as often happens, bureaucracy got in the way. "The Africans couldn't make the trip because [their] passports were sent to Burkina Faso to get visas — and they didn't come back," he recalls. "So the Africans couldn't come."

Ry Cooder, 2015 C Steve Proctor

Studio time had been booked at Cuba's national recording label, EGREM, whose main studio was built by RCA Victor in the 1940s. Before the revolution in 1959, everyone — from Cuban stars to Nat King Cole — recorded there. Gold and Cooder had the room, the gear and an excellent engineer named Jerry Boys. And Cuban bandleader Juan de Marcos González had already assembled a cadre of great Cuban musicians, some in their 70s and even late 80s. So, Gold says, they decided to record the group they had.

"I mean, I don't know if we knew that it would be financially or commercially successful, but we knew something amazing was going down," Gold says. Some of these older musicians had once been famous in Cuba, and some had not. But Gold believed they were all ready for their moment in the spotlight: "They knew they had nothing to prove. They knew why they were there."

A few of the musicians hadn't performed in years. In a 1999 interview, Ry Cooder recalled asking Juan de Marcos González if anyone still sang the old-fashioned ballads called boleros. "We asked, 'Does anybody still sing this way? This beautiful high tenor lyric voice?'" Cooder explained. "He says, 'There's only one guy left… and this is Ibrahim Ferrer. And he's hard to find. He's on the street somewhere.' He went out and he came back two hours later with this really strange-looking fellow."

Ferrer was 69 years old at the time, and shining shoes to earn a bit of money. "He says, 'So, what do you want me for? I don't sing anymore,'" Cooder continued. "I'm thinking, 'This is somebody, you know, this guy's heavy. Put him up in front of a microphone and see what he's going to do here.'"

Ibrahim Ferrer & Omara Portuondo at EGREM Recording Studio, Havana C Donata Wenders

Other musicians, like pianist Rubén González, had been equally forgotten as tastes changed in Cuba. "Rubén González was supposed to be dead," Cooder said. "Everybody said he was dead; he had fallen through the cracks, so to speak. He hadn't been heard from in 20 years, and nobody thought a thing about him." González didn't even have an instrument of his own anymore; his piano had been destroyed years earlier by woodworms and the tropical climate. So while the Buena Vista recording sessions were going on, Nick Gold says, "We'd get there very early because we were desperate to get into the studio. Then, always, first at the door would be Rubén González, waiting to go in."

The massive success of Buena Vista Social Club changed the musicians' lives for the better. Gold's label, World Circuit, made a string of group projects and solo albums, showcasing the individual artists' talents. Two years after the first Buena Vista album came out, filmmaker Wim Wenders directed a documentary that became an arthouse hit.

Gold jokes that Buena Vista became a kind of cottage industry: "Here's the magazine, here's the book, here's the fridge magnet and so forth." But he says it was never intended that way – it was just a perfect storm of people, talent and resources. "It was a very, very organic process," Gold emphasizes. "It was the right time and right place for so many of the people involved."

Buena Vista Social Club, Carnegie Hall, 1988 C Donata Wenders

More than two decades have passed, and several of the original members of the Buena Vista Social Club, including Ibrahim Ferrer and Rubén González, have died. But their music can still be heard throughout the island. In Old Havana, musicians you hear on the street corners aren't playing current styles like reggaeton, or hip-hop, or even salsa. They're playing music by the Buena Vista Social Club.

Barbarito Torres & the Buena Vista Social Club, 2012 C XIII

Hear the Buena Vista Social Club's music on STI's February 2019 tour to Cuba:
¡Viva Cuba!