ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: They are unlikely music megastars: Ibrahim Ferrer, 72 years old; until recently, retired; before that, a featured vocalist for big bands in Cuba. Omara Portuondo, in her 60's; famous in Cuba after a long career as a leading singer, but not, until now, an international star. And Ruben Gonzalez, 82 years old; a virtuoso pianist renowned among Cuban musicians, but not a big name elsewhere until now.
GROUP: (Singing in Spanish)
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now Ferrer, Portuondo, and Gonzalez are hot, with hit CD's and sold-out concerts like this one recently at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, California. Tickets for this event, which was part of the San Francisco jazz festival, sold out within hours. Reviewers raved. The "San Francisco Chronicle" critic wrote, "Saturday's show proved these musicians aren't just quaint memories of a romantic yesterday. The depth of talent in this extended group is extraordinary." The musicians' success story began long ago, but this feature-length documentary, "Buena Vista Social Club," which came out last summer, catapulted them to new fame.
NARRATOR: From Wim Wenders, director of "Wings of Desire" and "Paris, Texas," comes the story of an American musician who went searching for the sounds of an Island and discovered the soul of a people.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: American guitarist Ry Cooder went to Cuba in 1996, seeking some of the veteran performers who had played the clubs and casinos that made pre-revolutionary Havana one of the great music capitals of the world. With help from local Cubans, Cooder put together a group of musicians and produced several CD's, including the Grammy-Award-winning "Buena Vista Social Club" album that has now sold two million copies worldwide. Some of the group, like Omara Portuondo, had never stopped performing. Others, like Ibrahim Ferrer, who spoke to us in Oakland, had retired.
IBRAHIM FERRER: (speaking through interpreter) When they came to see me at my house, I was shining shoes. I was retired. I didn't need to shine shoes for money. I've always been a restless guy. You can ask my wife. I have to stay busy. I will play just by myself, or with the dog or kids. I've always got to be doing something.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The musicians called themselves the Buena Vista Social Club after one of the few big pre-revolutionary Havana nightspots that admitted black people. The film documents the recording sessions and a triumphant concert in New York's Carnegie Hall. Cooder had long been a fan of Cuban music, which combines Spanish melodies with African-derived rhythms, especially the boleros and the genre known as "son."
RY COODER, Musician: I love the music because it is purely emotional, and then it has a certain mysterious other side. The emotion we understand of tragedy, of joy and all these things; it's very well expressed as all these things. I think in the human beings and in their lives and things, the Cubans have got that nailed. (Ferrer sings "Silencio")
IBRAHIM FERRER: (speaking through interpreter) For me the Cuban son, the music I sing, is the greatest thing in the world. Without the son-- without all music, but especially the son-- life is nothing. It wakes you up. It makes your blood boil. With it there is nothing dead. Everything is alive. And life-- being really alive-- is the best thing for all of us.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How does it feel like to be standing in front of those Americans, singing a son or bolero, and you know maybe half of them haven't heard one, and they love it, they're responding so enthusiastically. How does it feel?
IBRAHIM FERRER: (speaking through interpreter) Right now I can't explain the way I feel because I want people to understand what I'm trying to say with my music. I don't know if I'm doing it well or not, but I think I'm doing it all right because I see a lot of people in the audience with tears coming down from their eyes. I can't even explain it. It's something I feel and the way that I feel it. That's how I give it back.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The great success you've had, has it changed you in any way?
IBRAHIM FERRER: (speaking through interpreter) I haven't changed at all. Well, I've changed, but... well, I never thought I'd be as famous as I am now. But in other ways I'm the same person I ever was. My living situation is the only thing that's changed. But personally, my inner feelings, which are the most important thing, haven't changed at all.
(Omara Portuondo Singing in Spanish)
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Omara Portuondo has played a key role in Cuban music, integrating American jazz into the African and Spanish traditions already strong on the island. On a walk in Oakland before the concert, I asked what had changed in her life with her new fame.
OMARA PORTUONDO: (speaking through interpreter) We're trying to use what we have to fix up our house. I live in the same house, but I've brightened it up a little bit.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I also asked whether the music she sings had just about died out in Cuba after the revolution in 1959.
OMARA PORTUONDO: (speaking through interpreter): No, there have always been people performing it, like Ruben, and Cachao, the bass player-- all these people who have kept playing. But the music has become more relevant and gotten more attention there now, for artistic reasons and because of the fame we got from the Grammy. (Piano music in background)
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Though Ruben Gonzalez had never stopped performing, he had cut back due to arthritis, and was practicing on friends' pianos. We found an old piano in a hotel near where he was staying in Oakland, and I asked him how he liked being so popular now.
RUBEN GONZALEZ: (speaking through interpreter) It's like being at a party, something very happy. Or it's like I went to the store for candy. I'm enjoying myself that much. I see a piano, like right now, and I go like this. I have to check it out and see how it is.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club have become celebrities. Ferrer drew an autograph-seeking crowd at the Oakland cafe where he spoke to us. Ry Cooder has a theory about why the musicians have touched such a chord here.
RY COODER: But when you are around him or around these folks, what you begin to see is they have retained some humanity that is very out in front. It's very well-worn, you know. This guy comes in this aura of humanity. He's his own person. His music comes from inside, it's from direct experience. It's not coming from a menu. He didn't buy it in a mall, so his culture has not been replaced, as people outside in the rest of the world have often forfeited and given up their culture, and they don't even know it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Given the strong feelings in this country about Fidel Castro's Cuba, Ry Cooder, Ferrer, and the other musicians avoid most talk of politics, but politics occasionally intrude. These demonstrations in Miami late last month against another Cuban band, Los Van Van, got rough, and in response the Buena Vista group canceled their Miami performance. And what the musicians can make from concerts and from CD's-- which are best sellers at this Virgin mega store in San Francisco-- is limited by restrictions on U.S. trade with Cuba. Bill Martinez, a San Francisco attorney who represents the musicians, explained what kinds of payment the Cubans can legally get.
BILL MARTINEZ: Well, the Cuban artists under the embargo, which we abide by the rules and regulations, they are only entitled to their per diem, transportation and lodging for tours that they take on. They're also entitled to royalties that they get for CD's, but that's all.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The musicians' success puzzles many Cubans, says bay area record producer Greg Landau, who has lived in Cuba. It's as if ragtime suddenly made a big come-back in the United States. But Cubans are paying attention, he says.
GREG LANDAU, Music Producer: We went to the premiere of the "Buena Vista Social Club" in Havana, and it was packed. And I think people have responded and come to reevaluate their own musical values by the success of "Buena Vista Social Club." Cubans have in Cuba, because they see how much it's appreciated outside of Cuba. They have come to re-examine these same traditions and these same roots.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And so the Buena Vista Social Club musicians, late in their lives, are having an impact far beyond anything they ever dreamed. They say it is a dream they wish everyone could share.