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Interview with Ry Cooder and Wim Wenders
In New York, by Charlie Rose, September 17, 1999, "Charlie Rose"

Charlie Rose: In 1996, musician Ry Cooder traveled to Cuba in search of a group of elderly musicians. These Latin jazz artists had flourished in pre-Castro Cuba, but had since been largely forgotten. In 1997, the assembled group, known as Buena Vista Social Club, released their first album. That effort revived the vanishing cultural sound and won the group a 1997 Grammy, as well as a chance to play Carnegie Hall.

Two years ago, acclaimed filmmaker Wim Wenders accompanied Cooder to Havana to capture these performers and their music on film. Here is a clip from the resulting documentary.

[excerpt from Buena Vista Social Club]

CR: Joining me now, the film's producer, musician Ry Cooder, and the film's director, Wim Wenders. I'm pleased to have them here to talk about this phenomenal film.

This began with you.

Ry Cooder: Uh-huh.

CR: You went and searched these -- I mean, what -- it began with, actually, you heard something years and years and years ago, and just kept it around the house?

RC: Well, I kept listening to these tapes and these old records I had a few of. And then finally, suddenly, a little, tiny window of opportunity opened up to get down there and actually meet these people and hear them play and try to record them.

CR: But what was the sound that sort of -- you couldn't get out of your head in terms of wanting at least to know more, find more?

RC: Right. It's a kind of a -- it's a kind of a mix of archaic, European-based dance music, 19th century, and this African rhythmic sort of pulse that they combine these two musical ideas together in the most amazing way. And they sing all these beautiful songs, and I just love beautiful song. And they not only do it well, but they do it with a kind of a -- of a mysterious sort of-- there's a sort of a grace that they have as people, that they dance, that they move, the way they are with each other. And it's just something that you-- it calls to you.

CR: So between the time you heard that the first time --

RC: Right.

CR: -- those albums you took back--

RC: Yeah.

CR: -- and then you went back in search of these musicians--

RC: Right.

CR: How long, 20 years?

RC: No, no. Well, actually, that's right, from the '70s -- I'd been down there in the '70s, and then ended up back in the '90s, so it is actually about 20 years.

CR: And where were these guys?

RC: Well, a lot of them have died, but then these guys had-- the ones that lived on just kind of faded into the -- into the woodwork down there. They didn't have much to do. They didn't have places to work. And the music became archaic and just disappeared and was replaced by salsa and other more modern forms, you know?

But they -- they were there. They just had to be kind of jump-started and gotten together. You know, they need a context.

CR: And having you show up must have been-- with an interest in their music, must have been like a Godsend for them.

RC: Well, of course, we came in -- they have no idea who you are when you come from the outside world. You could be anybody. So what you have to do is quickly reveal to them, which we tried to do, your intention. First of all, you love the music, and you're interested in them as people, and you -- I wanted to play with them. I actually just wanted to do it for me.

So if you can get this across on a personal level, then they respond and think, "Well, this would be fun. This is somehow going to be beneficial.'' And of course, to be given an opportunity to play is the more important for a musician, the worst thing being -- is to be neglected, which is kind of what had happened to them, see?

CR: Now, why was that? Why had they been neglected?

RC: Well, because old people all over the world are very often marginalized right out of their life, I mean, in a sense. Also because this song form, this older style, had -- had kind of fallen away from popularity in Cuba. And there just isn't much of a musical scene down there in the sense of work. They don't record. There's no record industry there. There's barely a nightclub scene, you know? And these folks in their 80s and 90s and 70s, they just didn't have anything to do anymore.

CR: And so you then set up the idea --

RC: Right.

CR: --"We're going to play.''

RC: Yeah, "Let's get together and play. We get everybody in a room, turn the tape machine on and see what we can do,'' and of course, come back every day and keep doing it and keep doing it. And the playback is the greatest thing for a musician, the call of the playback, if you like --

CR: Yeah.

RC: -- to hear what you're doing played back. And it's sounds big and fat, and it's the way it should be. And then that's very encouraging, you see? And so each day, you build something and you build something, and you get to be friends, and it's-- they love to play, so that's what you're trying to get on tape.

CR: And nobody objected.

RC: Nope.

CR: They loved it.

RC: Oh, absolutely. Sure.

CR: And you loved it.

RC: One hundred percent, yeah.

CR: Because you love the music, because you love Cuba, you love these guys, what?

RC: All those things. I mean, of course, being a player, I want to be around-- all my life I've wanted to be around great players or people who played music that pulled me, that was fascinating. And this is not just a couple but many. In this world today, in the '90s, I keep thinking how rare is this, you know, that you can find a group like this, still in touch with their own culture and their own music. So much of musical culture over the world is just being eclipsed, you know, and been just wiped out.

CR: Yeah. So you were -- in a sense, were doing something for posterity because these guys were dying.

RC: It's true. You try and inject a little lifespan into the music, if you can, you know?

CR: And how does this result in a Grammy?

RC: Ah! Yeah, I don't know. It happened. So this project's been very blessed by recognition from outside, from other people, from people who never even heard of Cuban music before. They feel connected to it in some way, and I've had a lot of people -- Latin people, non-Latin people, people of all kinds -- come up in the streets -- sometimes I'm in the grocery store and in the line at the bank -- telling me how great this is and how they love the film and how touched everybody seems to feel. And so that's -- that's as much as you can hope for.

CR: Now, how -- so how'd you get involved in this thing?

Wim Wenders: Well, Ry got me hooked. I had no idea about the history of it. I was working with Ry. When he came back from Havana, recording the first album, we were working on a score, and I was trying to get Ry to be concentrated because he always sort of looked in the distance and smiled, and I knew he was back in Havana.

CR: He's not with you!

Wim Wenders: He wasn't with me.

CR: So you said, "If you're not going to be with me, take me to where the hell you are."

WW: Yeah. So one day I said, "Can't you give me a cassette of the music you were doing?'' The album wasn't out yet. So he gave me a cassette, and I listened to it in my car. I stopped the car and parked it because I just couldn't believe it. I heard that rough mix three, four times that night, and the next morning I went to Ry and said, "Who are these guys you made this music with? It's unbelievable. Who are these kids?'' And he says -- [laughter] 'They ain't exactly kids.''

CR: Yeah.

WW: And he told me the stories of some of these people, and then I knew I just had to go see for myself.

CR: So you two went to Havana.

RC: We went back again.

WW: For the second album.

RC: For the second album that's been made and released. And Wim photographed those sessions and went and did filmed interviews with each in turn, in different locations, and began to build up the story of this thing. And then, of course, we went from there to a few concert venues so that we could have live footage of everybody. And on it went.

CR: Yeah. Becoming -- becoming a documentary about what?

WW: I don't even know it's a documentary. At the end of the shoot -- because we shot in Havana, then we shot in Amsterdam, and finally we shot here in New York. And at the end of the shoot, it didn't feel really like it was a documentary anymore. It felt like it was a true character piece.

CR: In other words, you selected these musicians. These guys were playing a role of a musician, and they had inhabited the role.

WW: Totally. And their life stories were -- were in front of us, and it was really like fiction. And it was bigger than I ever thought, this movie, in terms of the -- in terms of these people being bigger than life themselves. It's in all of them. Didn't feel like I was making a movie with some Cuban musicians. Felt like I was making a movie with Humphrey Bogart and -- and Cary Grant. I mean, they're big.

CR: I can't imagine what it meant for them. All of a sudden -- one guy was shining shoes.

RC: Well, totally.

CR: Totally.

RC: Which in Havana means you're about as poor as you can get.

CR: Shining shoes.

RC: Shining shoes in Havana, yeah.

CR: You come down, and he's -- and he's a vocalist.

RC: Yeah, singer.

CR: Singer.

RC: Uh-huh.

CR: He's now singing.

WW: He's singing. He's filling concert halls all over the world. I mean, they were in Vienna at the opera house, and they had a standing ovation, Rubén and Ibrahim, for 20 minutes. Never happened in the history of the Viennese opera house. Even Richard Strauss didn't get that sort of applause.

CR: This is great! What is it about them?

WW: It is that they are the way they are, and they --

CR: What's that?

WW: -- don't pretend to be anything else. They -- this music is their life's experience, and this music is their entire culture. It's not like second-grade experience. It's first-hand experience. And it's sexy music, and it's fun. The lyrics are incredibly -- how do you call it, if they have two different meanings?

RC: Yeah, full of -- full of layers of meaning and interpretation, and as we sometimes say, double entendres and triple entendres. So it's complicated. It's -- but it's very eloquent. I mean, they -- it's true, their experience is all through this -- this kind of music, and very well done. I mean, truly, that's -- the truth is, these are just great musicians, you know? Just absolutely fabulous.

CR: But it makes you think "what a loss'' for them, but also for the people of Cuba and people around the world who love music, they haven't been singing.

RC: That's right.

WW: But what a gain that it has been preserved. I mean, Ry just caught them in the nick of time.

CR: Yeah.

WW: And we were just--

CR: Well, they're 70 and 80 and 90 years old.

RC: That's right.

WW: Yeah, up to 94 now. And I mean, Ry just went there just at the last second. And also, I feel, with our cameras, when we came for the second [unintelligible], we just came there in time. And the film just caught them at this incredible moment in their lives, when they went from shining shoes to becoming stars in concert halls all over the world.

CR: No politics in this film?

RC: Well, this is about music for me, and people, and so, hopefully, we can say that the politics -- everything in Cuba -- it's a very political place, obviously, I mean, the in the international sense, you see. So everything is somehow political in this [unintelligible] I guess you could say --

CR: But you're not trying to make a political message film.

RC: No! I mean, we're trying to tell a human story. I mean, it sounds like a cliché?, but it's totally true. And like Wim says, these are people with such a rich individuality and -- and to shine the light on them is enough, you know?

WW: Telling -- making the film explicitly political would have belittled, I think, the subject. And also, I felt we wanted to make a film that could be seen worldwide, also in the U.S., also in Cuba, which is the case. And I think the film not being about politics but about music -- and the music speaks for itself. I think it put, in a strange way, Cuba more on the map than if you had made a political movie.

CR: You guys hear from Castro or anybody like that?

RC: No, not a peep.

WW: Didn't get [unintelligible]

CR: You brought the musicians, I guess, because of Carnegie Hall performance -- you brought them to New York.

RC: Right.

CR: How was that for them?

RC: Well, I think it was fantastic. While we were together and during the making of the film, they would often say, "Are we ever going to go to Carnegie Hall? When are we going there?'' Because they know. Everybody knows Carnegie Hall.

CR: Yeah.

RC: And it's a mecca, and it's a destination, in your mind, anyway. So it finally happened. And this was a miracle all by itself. To get every one of these people actually to the stage in Carnegie Hall was a tremendous job of work. A lot of people really struggled to do this.

CR: We've got two scenes from your film. First is the simple visiting of New York City, as they are in awe of the skyline. Here it is.

[excerpt from Buena Vista Social Club]

CR: They sell everything here! But he didn't know Marilyn Monroe.

WW: They didn't know. And a little later on, they didn't recognize Kennedy. That's where history stopped for them.

CR: History stopped in '59.

WW: Well, yeah.

CR: Wow.

WW: And time is -- [crosstalk]

CR: -- like you've never seen.

WW: And time is still stopped. That's also an attraction to film in Cuba because you're filming inside that time warp.

CR: Yeah.

WW: I mean, you get there, and very soon you realize something. You're not in 1999 anymore.

CR: Before we take a look at the Carnegie Hall performance -- you two guys are on the same wavelength musically and -- and --

RC: I'd say so, yeah.

CR: -- esthetically and --

RC: Sure. Well, you have to be to do this kind of work, you know?

CR: Yeah. You can't -- you can't have somebody's score in your films, in your case, or making your film, in your case --

RC: Oh, no. It wouldn't do.

WW: We go back a long time. We know each other from 25 years, something like that.

CR: Roll tape. Carnegie Hall. Here it is.

[excerpt from Buena Vista Social Club']

CR: So what else now? I mean, you -- not so much "What are you going to do,'' but where does this all go? Where do these guys go before they --

WW: They're touring like --

CR: -- breathe their last?

WW: -- there is no tomorrow.

CR: Is that right?

WW: Yeah. There's at least four different combinations out of them now. Compay Segundo, the oldest -- he's playing with his sons. He has a band. Ruben, the piano player, and Ibrahim and Omara, who you just saw, they have a big band together. They're going to be in America.

RC: They're coming here, yeah.

CR: That'll be big.

RC: Oh, yes. Big horn section. It's going to be big. Oh!

WW: They're touring for the last two years --

RC: Straight.

WW: -- without stop.

CR: It's a great, great story. Congratulations.

RC: It's a great story. Thank you.

WW: Thank you.

CR: Thank you both.

 

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