CUBAN-BORN BANDLEADER Perez Prado once said something like "All Cubans should feel good that another Cuban has had success, because it's really all of Cuba succeeding." If his countrymen are following his advice, the corners of their mouths are aching from all that smiling, and they've got the Buena Vista Social Club to blame.
Buena Vista Social Club
directed by Wim Wenders
opens June 18 at Broadway Market
Sublime Ilusi�> (Higher Octave World)
Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer (World
The ensemble's story is by now well known: In March 1996, guitarist Ry Cooder traveled to Havana to record a collaboration between some African and Cuban guitarists. Because of passport difficulties, the Africans never arrived, and Cooder (accompanied by his percussionist son, Joachim) set about assembling a band of veteran musicians from the pre-Castro days. The participants included singer/songwriter/guitarist Compay Segundo, pianist Rub鮠Gonzᬥz, vocalists Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo, guitarist Eliades Ochoa, bassist Orlando "Cachaito" L�, trumpeter Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal, and Barbarito Torres, who plays the lute-like stringed instrument the laoud. Cooder was motivated partly by a tape of an unknown Cuban guitarist that someone had given him in the '70s; it turned out to be Torres.
The resulting 1997 recording sold hundreds of thousands of copies and gave America a raging case of Cuban fever. In the past two years, everyone from postpunk guitarist Marc Ribot to Young Lion trumpeter Roy Hargrove has released an interpretation of Cuban music.
With the release of Wim Wenders' new documentary, Buena Vista Social Club, the relapse can't be far behind. The filmmaker is a longtime friend of Cooder (who composed the score for Wenders' Paris, Texas and The End of Violence), and when he heard about the guitarist's Cuban project, he decided to come along and film the recording sessions, held in Havana's crumbling, government-owned Egrem Studios. If ever a film director was in the right place at the right time, Wenders was, as the Buena Vista Social Club record shot up the world music charts and won a Grammy for Best Latin Tropical Performance. Cooder himself shows a bit of luck in having one of the world's most acclaimed directors shooting what is essentially a feature-length commercial for his record.
Not that Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club isn't a treat to watch. In front of Wenders' cameras, Havana is a gloriously wrecked grande dame—all sumptuous fabric and flaking paint. The camera accentuates the highly saturated colors—vivid orange, bright cobalt—of clothing and cars, depicting the city as a lush, mythical ruin.
"IN CUBA THE MUSIC flows like a river," Cooder wrote in the Buena Vista Social Club liner notes. Wenders has said he wanted his film to "float on this river . . . not interfering with it, just drifting along."
But if any director is unable to simply float, it's Wenders. In between shots of the actual recording sessions, he imposes a perfume-ad self-consciousness to the proceedings, posing each musician in a picturesque setting. His particular favorite seems to be an empty room with billowy curtains—though Gonzᬥz, who suffers from arthritis, is placed amid rubber-boned child gymnasts in a huge ballroom. The Cubans, by virtue of being impossibly impish and winsome, manage to surmount Wenders' stagy conceits: Ferrer, accompanied by his stoic wife, recalls his history as a teenage street musician and explains the items adorning his living-room altar to St. Lazarus; the charmingly goatish Segundo, who was 89 years old at the time of the recording, puffs on a cigar and jokes about his sex drive. (Joachim Cooder, filmed wandering around a courtyard for no apparent reason, fares less well.)
When Wenders manages to loosen his fashion-stylist tendencies, the results are enchanting. He handles the musical segments with skill, documenting the BVSC's only two performances, in Amsterdam and New York City's Carnegie Hall, as well as the studio work. So much music was recorded in these sessions that Nonesuch Records released a companion record, A Toda Cuba Le Gusta, credited to the Afro-Cuban All Stars, a loose group led by Juan de Marcos Gonzᬥz (of the popular Cuban dance band Sierra Maestra). In the film, Gonzᬥz appears as a kind of facilitator in the studio and onstage, helping recall standards of the '40s and '50s.
Cooder's time at Egrem also yielded solo debuts from Rub鮠Gonzᬥz, Segundo, and—more recently—Ferrer. Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer was released earlier this month, and the silky-voiced singer will tour the US later this year with the Orquesta Ibrahim Ferrer. Though he became known for his agile improvisations (displayed on raucous numbers like "Marieta"), Ferrer always wanted to sing ballads, and the BVSC sessions brought to the fore his skill with tender songs such as "Aquellos Ojos Verdes," which features Rub鮠Gonzᬥz's luscious piano intro.
But there's life—and music—beyond the Buena Vista. Ochoa, who leads the longstanding group Cuarteto Patria, will soon release Sublime Ilusi�I> independent of the BVSC machinery. Though both Ochoa and Ferrer were born in the rural town of Santiago de Cuba, their styles are as different as a polka and a sarabande. The tres player Ochoa is a proud conveyor of guajiro (or peasant) music, which is often likened to a Cuban version of the blues. Ferrer's sound, in contrast, is smooth, urban big band.
The emotional vocals of Portuondo can also be heard on a new CD, from songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Richard Eges, a master of charanga, a form of Cuban dance music that utilizes violin and flute. Other guests include renowned pianist Chucho Valdes, who lends his masterful style to "Angoa" and the standard "Guajira Guantanamera" (yes, that "Guantanamera").
Hovering behind each note that these musicians make is outlaw appeal. Humans love anything that's forbidden (how else to explain the popularity of the Lambada?). Cuba's politics are present in Wenders' film only in passing mentions of passports and police surveillance—but they are inherent in the music itself. The Cuban son was born in the countryside, and it went on to absorb the late-18th-century influence of white Frenchmen and Haitians streaming into Cuba to escape revolution. For a long time, playing son was forbidden, because its anti-slavery lyrics could cause riots. Now the music's recording is funded by Castro's government. So Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club isn't only a documentary—or a commercial—it's anti-embargo propaganda of the most subtle and effective kind.