No Cigar: Sub Pop's Cuban Coulda-Been

How the local label almost signed the Buena Vista Social Club.

When Sub Pop Records launched a world-music imprint last year with African artist Bassekou Kouyate, some argued that the historically rock-centric label was trying to capitalize on the popularized African-beat dabbling of the likes of Vampire Weekend.

"Writers are always trying to find trends," says Jon Kertzer, the man responsible for bringing Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba to Sub Pop's Next Ambiance imprint. "That's not the reality of how [Next Ambiance] came together at all. We came really close to doing something back in 1996."

At the time, Kertzer had just left his job at Microsoft, and Sub Pop had recently completed a deal to sell a minority interest in the label to Warner Music. Kertzer got a call from Nick Gold, a friend in London who had returned from recording some musicians in Cuba and was looking for a U.S. label to partner with. Kertzer called Sub Pop founder Jonathan Poneman, booked a pair of tickets to Los Angeles, and walked into a studio to listen to what Gold and partner Ry Cooder had come back with.

"We only heard fragments," Poneman said in a recent e-mail, "but it was incredible!"

They were listening to what would become Buena Vista Social Club, a record that's sold upward of eight million units—more than any Sub Pop release has ever moved—making it easily the biggest world-music release of all time.

"I was really, seriously interested in it, and I think so was Jonathan," Kertzer says. "We didn't get down to the point of, like, signing a contract or anything. There was a serious interest."

"The conversations didn't go very far," recalls Poneman. "But, truthfully, Sub Pop would not have been prepared to seriously undertake a project of that scope. It all ended up going to the right label, a great label: Nonesuch."

Coulda-beens aside, has the traditional Sub Pop audience responded favorably to Ngoni Ba?

"Are you kidding?" responded Poneman, the professional salesman. "[Ngoni Ba's] I Speak Fula is both dazzling and seductive...just like Mudhoney! Watching Ngoni Ba play live is revelatory. Get the record but do not miss the show!"

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