You may have heard of the Buena Vista Social Club, which was an ensemble of Cuban musicians. In 1997 they released a self-titled album, which became massively popular all over the world, selling over a million copies.
On top of that, the brilliant German director Wim Wenders made a documentary film about them and the creation of their music. But even if you’ve heard their songs, you may be wondering just what they’re actually about.
To people who don’t share the Cuban culture , and don’t speak the Spanish that they’re recorded in, you may be missing out on many of the lyrical and thematic meanings that are going on – and which make the songs so effective and beautiful.
Well, we’ve got the answers for you! In this article, we’re going to look at many of the Buena Vista Social Club’s most popular songs, and offer some insight into what they’re all about.
Whether it’s their Spanish lyrics, or the cultural references, you’ll be able to appreciate their songs even more once you’ve read this article.
Buena Vista Social Club – The Meanings Of Their Popular Songs
Before we begin, it’s worth noting that most of the songs that Buena Vista Social Club recorded were not originally created by them.
Most of them were “standards”, which are popular and established pieces of music that are regularly covered by different artists over the years. With that being said, the group brought their own musical spin to them, in a sense making them their own.
We’re going to start off with Dos Gardenias, which is a song that was originally written in 1945 by Isolina Carrilo.
Strictly speaking, it’s a “bolero”, which is a type of song that is characterized by its complex and impactful lyrics dealing with matters of love and romance. As a result, they can be very heartfelt, but also deeply sad – bittersweet and full of longing.
Dos Gardenias translates as “two gardenias”, which are a type of flower. These flowers are commonly known to symbolize gentleness and purity, which chimes with hopeful representations of love.
In the song, the two gardenias are given by the singer to somebody else. For him, they’re a reflection of his deep love for that person.
However, the lyrics then continue to warn that if the flowers die then it’s because the other person has fallen in love with a different man.
What begins as a sweet image, soon becomes bittersweet – and now you can know the sorrowful lyrics next time you hear it!
This song was originally written in 1984 by Company Segundo, who heard the opening melody in his dreams! Rather fittingly, the subject matter and story that happens in the song’s lyrics is quite surreal and dream-like in itself.
The lyrics tell the tale of a man, Chan Chan, and a woman named Juanica who are on a beach. The couple of lovers are building a house together, and they’ve gone to get sand that will help them create their home.
Chan Chan scoops up some sand and puts it on the jibe, which is a sieve that’s made to sort sand out. However, Juanica goes to shake the sieve, but it makes her body shake at the same time. This embarasses Chan Chan, because of the seductive look of it.
This story is based on an old farmer song that Segundo had heard. The most famous part of the song he then wrote is the chorus, which discusses travels from lots of places in Cuba, such as Alto Cedro, Mayari, and Cueto.
Amor De Loca Juventud
This is a fairly bleak and sad song about the passage of love and time. The title itself translates to “Crazy Youth Love”, and the song begins with “Dead are the dreams of days past, which I fulfilled with lustful love”.
The story is about a man who innocently gave his soul away to a woman, but then realized that the woman was seeking the love of crazy youth in him. The dreams and promises are in the past now, and their love seems to be long gone.
El Cuarto De Tula
On the surface, this song may seem very startling, far from its fun sound! But if you look a little deeper, it actually has a much more raunchy meaning to it.
The lyrics tell the story of Tula’s bedroom, which is what the title roughly translates to, which has caught fire. Apparently she fell asleep and forgot to put her candle out, so now people are shouting for the firemen to come and put it out – or anyone, really.
However, this has another meaning! The song repeatedly refers to “la cendela” (the candle) and “el fuego” (the fire), which can actually be interpreted as Tula’s sexual desire – her “fiery” passion.
In this way, everybody is called over, including the firefighters, and many want to help put it out – which really means go to bed with her.
¿T Tú Qué Has Hecho?
This is a clever and sad song about lost love. The title roughly means “And what have you done?”, and tells the story of a young girl who carves her name in the trunk of a tree while filled with delight. The tree is moved deepy, so lets a flower fall from it and onto the girl.
However, the sweet image is then shot down. The next verse takes the position of the tree, which appears to be a lover who is sad and touched.
The tree (the lover) always keeps the girl’s name dear, presumably still having it written on its trunk, but it doesn’t seem like the girl has done the same.
The final line asks what she has done with his poor flower – presumably she lost it or gave it away, and is with a new lover.
Just like “Dos Gardenias” from earlier, this cleverly uses flowers and lost flowers as symbolism for the disappearance of love.
De Camino A La Vereda
This is a song that’s all about keeping on the straight and narrow, and not getting led off your path or being tempted by other things – and other women? Though the lyrics are ambiguous, it’s certainly likely.
The title translates roughly to “From the Road to the Stretch Path”, which refers to the idea of being literally led away from the safe and proper path that you’re on and onto another, likely less good path.
The ending even touches on murder, noting that somebody may walk cool but they’ve killer their mother. This is probably not literal, and more likely a reference to a Cuban saying.
Basically, its meaning is all about surface level appreciations: a person may look proper on the outside, but inside they may be severely lacking.
This cover song is all about appreciating your lot in life and being thankful for what you have. It tells the story of a cart driver who works without rest, yet happily sings all the way around, doing his modest tasks.
Why does he do it all so happily? Well, he works hard so that one day he can get married. If he manages to do that, he’ll be a very fortunate person.
This title translates to “whisper”, and its brief but beautiful story is all about two lovers. They share the blue of night time, charmed and bewitched. Life laughs, and all is peaceful.
This is another sad song about love that’s long gone by, and only the memories remain. The title translates to “twenty years”, and is sung from a woman’s perspective, as she remembers how somebody loved her…twenty years ago.
This song is about a woman from Bayamo, a bit like The Girl From Ipanema. The story of this one, however, is much more sad.
The lyrics speak about a woman who burns down her house rather than letting it be seized by the Spanish during the revolutionary conflict.
This is very similar to the song about Tula’s bedroom earlier, in that it uses fire and firefighters to convey a song about lust and passion.
Basically, a man is watching a woman dance, and it’s got under his skin. He’s so turned on that he’s on fire, and he needs the firefighters to put it out – and control himself.
This is all about a woman who knows how divine and perfect she is. However, her man then chimes in and speaks of jealousy and temptation…though he won’t fall for them. They’ll keep loving each other, because she’s seen his only illusion.
There you have it! Next time you listen to the Buena Vista Social Club album, you’ll now understand the meanings behind each song, and appreciate the beautiful music even more.
If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy our post on ‘Early History Of Cuba‘.