It was the summer of 1999.
Sean Bellaviti, who was then an undergraduate student at York University, was working as a waiter in a pseudo-Italian restaurant in Bloor West Village that cooked pasta past the al dente requirement and offered the type of cheese an Italian would look at in dismay.
Like the menu, the restaurant’s music was just as culturally inaccurate — it played Cuban music. All day and all night.
More importantly, it played music by the group Buena Vista Social Club.
Fast forward 20 years and Bellaviti finds himself at the Imperial Pub located just outside of Ryerson University campus. On a tiny stage located at the back of the bar, the music instructor is hosting a presentation on the band, acknowledging the impact it has had on him personally and on music worldwide. With a piano on his right, the Ryerson sessional instructor demonstrates key riffs that signify the essence of Cuban son, the genre Buena Vista Social Club embodied. He takes his audience through the band’s history and how it came to the mainstream.
Originating as a social club in the 1940s in Havana, Cuba, the club was known to host dances and musical activities, making it a popular location for musicians to meet and play. The club shut down, but 50 years later, Cuban musician Juan de Marcos González came together with American guitarist Ry Cooder and other traditional Cuban musicians to revive the sound.
These musicians were mostly veterans who had performed at the club during the height of its popularity, reviving the club’s initial premise. It became a collective of musicians until the band progressively became a 13-member ensemble, each musician bringing his own talent without outshining the other.
Bellaviti’s roommate back in that summer of 1999 was a Cuban musician. While the Italian restaurant introduced him to the band’s soundtrack, his roommate, Tony, was the reason he truly began to pay attention to the Cuban son genre.
One day, Tony summoned him to the the living room. Bellaviti took a seat on the couch and they began to watch the self-titled documentary Buena Vista Social Club.
“It’s important to your training,” Tony said.
Bellaviti was interested in learning to play Cuban-style piano. He kept his sturdy Heintzman piano by his bedside so he could practise the highly varied and arithmetically complex rhythms whenever he could.
“While thinking of the band, to say that Tony knew I liked Buena Vista Social was an understatement,” said Bellaviti. “I practised the repetitive two bar Tumbao sound over and over.”
Bellaviti’s obsessive yet passionate interest in Buena Vista Social Club was shared with colleagues and friends at York. They began to apply their jazz skills to the genre, which then led them to finally perform their first Cuban music performance in 1999 at the Cervejeria Bar-Grill on College Street and Ossington Avenue.
Buena Vista Social has recently marked 20 years of musicianship. While only some of the original members remain, the group performed its final show at Carnegie Hall in 2016.
“Their music is timeless. You can listen to it whenever and wherever, regardless of how you’re feeling,” said York University professor Alison Crosby, who attended the Imperial Pub event.
Bellaviti researches on the development of music, territory and ethnicity, particularly within the Panamanian and broader Latin American context, as well as among Toronto’s Latin American community.
He has worked closely within urban Latin American musical traditions and among the communities that sustain them. Bellaviti maintains an active performance career in Canada where he continues to collaborate on numerous community-oriented creative projects.
He has worked with a number of jazz musicians, including Bill McBirnie, Lynn Macdonald, Janelle Monique and Matt Dusk.