Inside EGREM Siboney | Santiago de Cuba’s Recording Studio

Control Room | EGREM Siboney

Still buzzing from the Eliades Ochoa gig, today I’ve got a guided tour of Egrem Siboney recording studio on the menu. It’s all part of Xiomara Vidal’s bottomless bag of tricks.

This is the studio where Compay Segundo and Eliades Ochoa first recorded the track ‘Chan Chan’, which would later become the signature track on the multi-platinum Buena Vista Social Club album.

Egrem Siboney Recording Studio

I walk into the entrance and introduce myself to the receptionist, who recognises me from Friday and welcomes me.

She buzzes through to the studio using an antiquated radio system. A distorted voice from the other end gives the OK for me to go through.

I climb the stairs, passing the ‘silence, recording’ sign, and slowly edge the studio door open.

The Founding of EGREM Siboney

EGREM is Cuba’s state-owned record label.

Its headquarters were established in Havana in 1964, following the Cuban revolution. And in keeping with Cuba’s communist ideals, most of its profits are used to subsidise the country’s music education system.¹

Some years after EGREM’s founding in Havana, it became clear that Cuba’s East, the cradle of the trova style and birthplace of the bolero, was under-represented.

EGREM Siboney was opened in 1980 within the grounds of a former convent in Santiago de Cuba. ‘Siboney’ is the name of an indigenous tribe of Cuba, from which a seaside town near Santiago de Cuba also takes its name. The studio’s inception owes much to the efforts of revolution-era commander, Juan Almeida Bosque, who was its main promoter.²

The opening of the studio came just at the right time for Eliades Ochoa and his band, the Cuarteto Patria.

Juan Almeida Bosque at EGREM Siboney
Juan Almeida Bosque

Eliades & EGREM in the Early Days

In 1982, Eliades was invited to play with legendary Cuban guitarist and singer, Ñico Saquito, on the album ‘Al Bate’, to be recorded at EGREM Siboney. It turned out to be Ñico’s last recording, completed 3 months before his death.

Ñico was very impressed with Eliades’ guitar playing and Eliades has since said that this experience provided the platform for his later involvement with the Buena Vista Social Club.³

Chanchaneando | Eliades Ochoa & Compay Segundo

In 1986, ‘Chan Chan’, written by Compay Segundo, was recorded for the first time at EGREM Siboney in Santiago de Cuba.

Compay had joined Eliades Ochoa’s Cuarteto Patria and the recording featured on their album ‘Chanchaneando’ (‘ChanChan’ing’).

Guided Tour of the Studio

I open the studio door and peek my head through like a meerkat. I am welcomed and invited to enter (fully) by a young lad called Luis, the assistant engineer. He introduces me to the sound engineer/producer, Maximo, and some other musicians who are gathered on a couch at the back of the room.

We stand behind the console, where you can see down into the the large live room below, through a double-glazed window.

Live Room at EGREM Siboney, Santiago de Cuba
José and Luís

Luis signals for me to follow him down to the live room. He opens the heavy soundproof door and holds it open for me.

As we walk down the stairs into the large hall, there is a lone figure in the middle practicing riffs on a double bass.

As we approach, Luis introduces me to him. His name is José.

On either side of the hall, baffles have been set up to acoustically insulate the musicians. This will give Maximo more control later on when mixing the tracks.

Behind one baffle is a tres player, and the other, a guitarist. Further back, in a recess underneath the control room, a bongo player is warming up.

The place just oozes atmosphere and it feels like I’ve been taken back in time to the 50s. I ask for a bit more information about who has recorded here. Luis suggests we go back up to the control room and talk to Maximo who will know a bit more.

Jose Angel Martinez

Bassist for AfroCubism & Cuarteto Patria

I’m wondering whether this may have been the studio where the AfroCubism project was recorded – that long awaited and historic collaboration between musicians from Mali and Cuba.

When we arrive upstairs, I ask Maximo if I could ask him a few questions. Of course, he says, and invites me to sit in on the session in the control room.

Maximo and I get chatting and as it turns out, the album wasn’t recorded here but the bassist here today, Jose Angel Martinez, played on the album, having been the bassist for Eliades Ochoa.

José Ángel Martínez joined Eliades Ochoa’s Cuarteto Patria and toured Europe with them in 2009.

I saw how Eliades had enlisted two youngsters for his gig at the Casa de la Trova, and it appears that José was another case of Eliades giving youth a break in the music industry.

Check out José’s bass solo on the Madrid leg of the their tour.

Sitting in with Maximo Espinosa

Double Grammy-Winning Producer & Engineer

Maximo gets me a coffee out of the flask and I sit over near to the band’s leader, Yvan. He tells me a bit more about Maximo and why they are so excited to be working with him.

Maximo Espinosa | EGREM Siboney
Maximo Espinosa behind the Amek Angela II mixing desk at EGREM Siboney

Maximo Espinosa has worked up through the ranks at EGREM Siboney and, having helped to add some silverware to its cabinet, is held in high regard by his employers and now across Latin America.

Long-time EGREM Siboney producer, Jorge Luis Pujals, had this to say about Maximo:

“Many years of experience have been passed on to our recording engineers, and they have been excellent students, such as Maximo Espinosa, who has already won two Latin Grammy nominations for his work with the Septeto Santiaguero.”

And since that statement, Maximo has gone on to dominate the Best Traditional Tropical Album category winning 2 Latin Grammies and earning 2 other nominations.

Maximo's Latin Grammy Nominations & Victories


Oye Mi Son | Santiaguero Septeto
Latin Grammy nominated


Un Bolero Para Ti | Eliades Ochoa
Won the Latin Grammy


Vamos Pa'La Fiesta | Septeto Santiaguero
Latin Grammy nominated


Septeto Santiaguero | No Quiero Llanto-
Won the Latin Grammy

Eliades Ochoa & Cuarteto Patria will return to EGREM Siboney to record their next album. Maximo will again be running the session, so perhaps another trip to the Latin Grammy Awards is on the cards.

But right now, Maximo is fully focused on recording local band Combinación Latina‘s new album.

Combinación Latina

The session is starting to hot up so I drift over to the side of the studio to play fly-on-the-wall.

Ideas fire back and forth over the talkback mic between Maximo, Yvan and his wife Lisbeth in the control room, and the musicians below us in the live room.

Yvan and his wife Lisbeth del Pilar Tellez of Combinacion Latina at EGREM Siboney, Santiago de Cuba

It’s quick-fire stuff, in full-blown Cuban accents, so most of it goes over my head. But one thread I do understand. Maximo is directing the lead singer to make sure he is timing the lyrics correctly so that the stressed syllables in each words coincide with the stressed beats in the music.

This is because, in the Spanish language, changing the placement of the stress in the word can change the meaning (e.g. ésta means this but está means he/she/it is). However, I have heard instances in other songs where this is not adhered to strictly. It’s an interesting difference between Spanish- and English-language songs and shows Maximo’s level of attention to detail.

Having experience of recording myself, it strikes me just how efficient these Cuban musicians are in a recording environment. Many of the performances are done in one take and often appear to be improvised. The speed and fluency with which they can pick out melodies and rhythms is mind-blowing.

It’s an absolute pleasure to sit here at the side of the control room and watch the session unfold.

Having begun the weekend with a once in a lifetime experience meeting Eliades Ochoa at the Casa de la Trova, I’ve started this week with another. I wonder what else Cuba might have in store for me yet.

I leave looking forward thanking Xiomara in my next lesson with her.

Related Articles