#1 For Americans at least, Cuba is a country about which little is known. Anti-Castro/anti-Communist propaganda? Sure, you can find plenty of that. But when it comes to facts about Cuba’s culture, welcome to the Dark Ages. For this reason the CD Buena Vista Social Club comes as a good antidote to that ignorance of Cuban music, and, like the film by Wim Wenders of the same title, it is a kind of documentary about many of that country’s finest, venerable musicians.
About half the movie is filmed in beautiful, crumbling, stuck-in-time Havana, and the music on the CD is the aural equivalent of those images. Still vibrant and full of life, the music nevertheless represents a disappearing culture, song types and a performance style which may well die with its musicians, most of whom are now in their 80s or 90s.
Among those outstanding grand old men of Cuban music are singer Ibrahim Ferrer, a sort of Cuban Nat King Cole, and Rubén Gonzalez, a pianist not unlike all those antique, classic American cars driving around the streets of Havana: Aged, but the motor still purrs, and the lines are nothing less than pure art.
The musicians may be old, but they are still able to croon, swing and play their instruments – guitars, piano, bass, percussion, Cuban mandolin, trumpet and others – with dexterity. The songs are a rich mixture of backgrounds and influences, like the Cuban people themselves. Most of the songs are Afro-tinged, Latin-Caribbean music, such as calypso or salsa, but there are romantic ballads more like the old Tin Pan Alley style of the ’30s and ’40s, and the numbers in which Gonzalez plays piano are generally jazz inspired, layered over with the classical idiom of Debussy.
In addition to the native musicians, Los Angeles guitarist Ry Cooder and his percussionist son play on the disc. Cooder often adds subtle but important slide guitar filigree riffs in between lines in the lyrics, while son Joachim always finds the right instruments to enhance the sound and mood of the songs.
As the film explains, Cooder went to Havana to make a recording of some Cuban and West African musicians, but when the Africans couldn’t make it, Cooder went around town trying to collect as many of the great, forgotten musicians as he could and put them together for some of their favorite songs. The result was this excellent CD, whose title is the name of the now defunct club where many of them used to perform.
The CD is partly enjoyable for the various styles of music which are represented, from the simple two-step vaudeville-like Orgullecida, through the wonderfully irregular phrased opening number Chan Chan, to the three-firealarm hot Candela.
Another great thing about the music is its lack of music industry slickness and studio perfection, so much the norm nowadays. This is music the way it really is, or perhaps was. Its rugged, sometimes unfinished and, yes, aging sound is very much like the Havana shown in Wenders’s film: Perhaps a bit down on its heels, but there is so much beauty and dignity. And it may just be a last glimpse – a good view, or a buena vista, as it were – of a culture and society that will be swept away and forgotten in the very near post-Castro future. Listen to it now while it’s still with us.
Buena Vista Social Club
Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén Gonzalez, Ry Cooder, et al.
re-published with kind permission from Budapest Sun Online