‘Kirsty MacColl’s Cuba’ was the title of Kirsty’s snapshot history of Cuban music, recorded with Jan Fairley and a BBC Radio team in late 2000. This series was recorded in Havana late last year (2000), just weeks before her death.
Series producer John Leonard recalls, “I was with Kirsty in Havana just a month before her tragic death at the age of 41. We were there to make a series on Cuba and Cuban music for Radio 2, and we spent a week together recording on location. Her death, on 18 December – two days before the series was due to be broadcast – shocked us all. The series harnessed her love of Cuban music and set it against the turbulent history of the island, through Castro’s revolution, the missile crisis and the hardships following the Soviet Union’s collapse. We talked about strong-smelling cigars, powerful spirits and fifties cars, and played as much great music as we could, from Beny More and Perez Prado to the present day, via the great success of the Buena Vista Social Club, the undoubted gateway into Cuban music for most listeners. It certainly felt strange hearing the first show going out. After our first production meeting, I asked Kirsty to pick her favourite tracks; a couple of days later a tape dropped through the office door with a series of gems on it. We played many of them throughout the series. She told me she developed her love of Cuban music when she worked with some Cuban session musicians in New York, and it became one of the loves of her life. She taught herself to speak Spanish so she could understand the songs and played them constantly at home, so much so that apparently her teenage children would ask her to put something else on the CD player.’
‘Every hour in Havana was precious, but Kirsty knew how to work hard and relax on the road. One night coming back from the Bay of Pigs, she bought some rum to make the journey go faster, and after a couple of glasses we began to swap jokes and sing songs. I remember her saying, ‘Here’s a song my dad taught me.’ We expected an old folk number but she launched into a brilliant version of the Groucho Marx song *lsquo;Lydia the Tattooed Lady’. It was risqué, funny and wonderfully performed. It’s odd, but this is the memory that sticks for me: Kirsty with a glass of rum, roaring with laughter at a rude song.’
In the first of this eight part series, singer/songwriter Kirsty MacColl soaks up the atmosphere in a bar in Havana’s Cathedral Square as she begins her exploration of the island whose biggest export is its music. There’s music from the Buena Vista Social Club, which rocketed Cuban music to the world’s attention, the Afro-Cuban All Stars, Los Van Van and Cuba’s current Number One ‘Soy Malo’ – I’m Bad. Ry Cooder and musician Juan de Marcos Gonzalez describe their role in making the Buena Vista and travel writer Simon Calder describes his love affair with Cuba.
Broadcast on BBC Radio 2, 31st January 2001
Before the 1959 revolution swept Fidel Castro to power Cuba was considered America’s playground, and singer songwriter Kirsty MacColl searches out the songs and venues that were the backdrop to the pre-revolutionary parties. She visits Havana’s world famous Tropicana nightclub, which played host to stars like Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra, and hears from one of Cuba’s top female vocalists, Omara Portuondo, a one-time dancer with Carmen Miranda who sang with Nat King Cole when he appeared at the club in 1957. There’s music from Cuban legends Beny More, Perez Prado and Lucille Ball’s husband Desi Arnaz, who became America’s best loved Cuban in the early 1950s.
Broadcast on BBC Radio 2, 7th February 2001
Kirsty takes a trip to the Bay of Pigs to re-visit the dramatic years from Castro’s Revolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Buena Vista Social Club star Ibrahim Ferrer tells how he was in Moscow with Kruschev during the crisis, Gloria Estefan recalls her father’s involvement in the anti-Castro Bay of Pigs invasion and veteran Cuban actress Hilda Oartes tells of a chance encounter with Che Guevara during the revolution. There’s music from Carlos Puebla, Silvio Rodriguez and the Afro-Cuban All-Stars. Later in the series Kirsty visits Havana’s famous Egrem Studios and picks some of the best Cuban music available in the UK.
Broadcast on BBC Radio 2, 14th February 2001
Cars, bars and cigars made Havana famous around the world, and Kirsty sets out to discover the secrets of the finest Cuban cigars and the smoothest Havana rum. Stopping at the city’s car museum, Kirsty hears how those classic American cars from the Fifties are now considered a national resource, as Cubans kept them rolling through the shortages and the US embargo. Kirsty learns to make the perfect daiquiri at the Floridita bar, made famous by Hemingway, and visits the Partagas cigar factory. There’s music from Celina Gonzalez, Sierra Maestra and Cuba’s finest doo-wop group Los Zafiros.
Broadcast on BBC Radio 2, 21st February 2001
Living in Cuba may be no holiday, but where there’s a bar there’s music, and there’s a magical quality to Havana that makes up for the shortages. With the help of expert travel writer Simon Calder and music producer Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, Kirsty goes in search of Havana’s best haunts, and gets a lesson from Juan on how to play the tres, the distinctive Cuban guitar which has three pairs of strings and is a familiar sight in the city’s many music bars. There’s music from Los Van Van and Pablo Milanes and a Cuban’s guide to the Mambo.
Broadcast on BBC Radio 2, 28th February 2001
Cuban music’s known around the world due to the phenomenal success of the Buena Vista Social Club CD, a gathering of Cuba’s finest musicians organised by Ry Cooder and World Circuit record producer Nick Gold. Kirsty hears how the project became reality, and talks to legendary singers Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo about the making of the record in Havana’s famous EGREM studios. There’s music from the Buena Vista CD and from pianist Ruben Gonzalez, whose career was invigorated after the record’s incredible success.
Broadcast on BBC Radio 2, 7th March 2001
For many people the Buena Vista Social Club is their introduction to Cuban music, but there is much more to discover. From the verandah of Havana’s most famous hotel, the Nacional, Kirsty and expert musicologist Doctor Jan Fairley discuss the best of Cuban music available in the UK. From Los Van Van to Trio Matamoros to Rojito y su Orchesta, Kirsty and Jan provide an essential beginners’ guide through the complex styles and sounds of the island of music.
Broadcast on BBC Radio 2, 14th March 2001
Cuba’s popularity as a suntrap island is on the rise, but it’s still the only socialist island in the Caribbean. Many Cubans prefer not to answer questions about the island’s post-Castro fortunes, but most admit that things will change. Former Talking Head David Byrne and travel writer Simon Calder offer their view on how Cuba will be affected and the appeal of Castro’s Cuba, and veteran Cuban actress Hilda Oates tells how the Revolution and its aftermath indelibly stamped the personalities of Che and Castro on the island.
Broadcast on BBC Radio 2, 21st March 2001