Havana: The Golden Era

Havana, Cuba, circa 1949: A dance club resplendent with the elegance of the island's nightlife before the Revolution. Sparkling chandeliers, bow-tied waiters, couples dressed to the nines. On stage, a big, brassy band fronted by a slick-haired heart-throb. There is the kind of gaiety in the air that can only brew in the company of young people and everyone here is young. There is drinking and dancing and flirting. The ambience is a curious mix of abandon and formality. When a young man asks a young woman to dance, the gesture is rendered with great respect and formality; the young man gently extends an upturned hand.

But on the dance floor, things are considerably looser. The rhythms echoing in the hall play the bodies like marionettes, a ritual unleashing of desire. And yet, for all the seemingly spontaneous force of the music and dancing, there are clearly defined patterns. The bodies pace and twirl to the music's 6/8 rhythm, and even more specifically, to five accented beats within that signature, what is known as the clave, the root of tropical music. There is plenty of room for improvisation among both musicians and dancers, but the limits are known to all. It is exuberant, even "dangerous" music, kind of tropical rock 'n' roll where the sexuality is barely, if at all, contained, but it is also tightly structured, a modernist hurricane.

The Ghosts of History

The singer croons of heartache and devotion, of love requited and not and, subtly, with light or dark double-entendres and innuendo, of desire itself. But he also invokes that which is beyond desire. The metaphors often involve fire and water: direct references to ancient deities that crossed, and survived, Middle Passage and gave birth to the New World Afro Caribbean religion of Santería, the spiritual heart of Cuban music. Indeed, the syncopated rhythms and similarly complex lyrics symbolically link with some of history's greatest events: the meeting of Old and New worlds, slaves and masters, the feudal and the imperial, the advent of the modern in the 20th century life in the city. It's all there to be heard in the instrumentation, which is European (brass), and African (percussion) and, loosely, "American" (the manner in which tropical music incorporates jazz influences).

In the Americas, we speak of "mestizaje," the melding of disparate lineages that resulted from the Conquest, but that ultimately belies such an absolute term. If Africa and the ancient Americas had truly been conquered, everyone would perform and dance waltzes today. The grooves of tropical music on the continent --Cuba has long been recognized its undisputed leader-- provide great catharsis, an affirmation of life itself, of cultural and spiritual survival.

If you'd been at the Buena Vista Social Club in Havana, circa 1949, history itself would have danced before your eyes. And it does so once again, through the music and the film. We return to the proscribed Island, a place that was rendered at once mythic and hopelessly superficial through the lens of the Cold War. We also return to a past that was virtually proscribed in Cuba itself.

The wistful irony of this story is that the club at the mystical heart of the music and the Wim Wenders documentary that PBS now presents no longer exists. The revolution of 1959 stands as a border in time. The music of Cuba emigrated to the United States and Europe throughout the early part of the 20th century causing not a few "crazes" among Latinos and non-Latinos alike. But by the mid-1960s, after the Cold War embargo of the island took effect, a generation of music and musicians suffered a premature death. True, the forms that had originated on the island continued to thrive abroad, via the energy of émigrés. But by the late 60s, the distinctness of the myriad sub-genres of Cuban tropical music began to blur, diluting into the generic "salsa" that we have today. Not that there isn't some great music amid the commercial product inspiring audiences around the world these days, but a link with the past has been lost. The Buena Vista Social Club is about re-establishing that link, not as a nostalgic nod, but as a necessary reconciliation.

Over the last forty years, Cold War politics have stood in the way of that reconciliation. The fall of the Berlin Wall did not do away with what remains as one of the last vestiges of that conflict: the U.S. embargo against Cuba. In cultural terms, the Cold War played itself out on the island by way of the state project of fomenting art directly linked to revolutionary ideals. It is important to note that some fascinating music resulted from this endeavor including such Nueva Canción ("New Song") artists as Silvio Rodríguez and Pablo Milanés, both of whom have been introduced to U.S. audiences in recent years by the likes of former Talking Heads front-man and world music guru David Byrne. But pre-revolutionary music -- the music of the great bandleaders like Arsenio Rodríguez and Beny Moré -- fell into disfavor under Castro's regime, associated by the Revolution with the "decadence" of the Batista era.

The Resurrection

By the time that producer Nick Gold and guitarist and producer Ry Cooder arrived on the island in 1996, many of the personalities from the classic big band era had faded away. Some had died, others were living a quiet retirement in exile. Among those that still lived on the island, many were forgotten and unemployed.

The Buena Vista Social Club, the album and the film is the story of a remarkable re-living of the classic era of Cuban popular music, the resurrection of musical forms and personalities that have wielded an extraordinary influence over Western music. It is the story of one of the most unique musical narratives of our time. Its impact has been not only of bringing a crew of great musicians out of ignominy on the island, but also of providing, for audiences in the U.S. and Europe, a kind of Rosetta Stone, a way to interpret the Latin influence on world music over the last half century.

In so many ways, this is a classically "American" story using the broad, continental definition of the word. The characters hail from Cuba (all the principal musicians, of course, and also musician-producer Juan de Marcos González), Europe (filmmaker Wim Wenders, producer Nick Gold), the United States (guitarist and producer Ry Cooder). Africa is powerfully present as well, through bloodlines and vast cultural influence. Two visions formed the primary impetus for the project. Nick Gold, a renowned personality in the world music scene, had in mind to record a unique collaboration between West African and Cuban guitarists in Havana, and invited Ry Cooder to sit in. The American virtuoso, fresh from "global" collaborations with V.M. Bhatt (A Meeting by the River) and Ali Farka Touré (Talking Timbuktu), enthusiastically signed on. But a twist of bureaucratic fate -- the African players were denied visas -- nipped this original notion in the bud.

Juan de Marcos González was the other visionary. A former rock 'n' roller who'd rediscovered his Cuban roots mid-career, González knew all the players who eventually would perform for the initial album project; they'd been his mentors and heroes. He dreamed of a tribute album to these musical pioneers. When the Afro-Cuban project fell through, Gold, Cooder and González joined forces to fulfill Gonzalez's ideal.

Throughout the production, there were moments when it seemed that all would come to naught. The tape machine at the legendary Egrem Studios in Havana, where all the album sessions were held, promptly broke down before a single song was cut. There was also the matter of contacting the musicians and (sometimes literally) dragging them into the studio. After all, most of the players were now quite senior (at 89, Compay Segundo was the eldest when the sessions began), and many had not played in years. Pianist Rubén González was said to suffer from such a terrible case of arthritis that he couldn't bear to touch the keys; vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer was shining shoes for a living. Among the dozen others that eventually showed up, there were several whose whereabouts were, simply, unknown. In a frenzied flurry of networking, the former stars were gathered at Egrem. Even with the crew assembled, however, there was considerable doubt as to the outcome of the sessions. But, of course, magic happened.

Just about everyone involved in the project remembers the moment that Rubén González showed up at Egrem for an "audition." Nick Gold, Juan de Marcos González and Ry Cooder watched from the control room as the diminutive, plaintive-faced González sat at the piano in the booth. The lights were dimmed. González caressed the keys, executing a tumbao progression. Without prompting, Orlando "Cachaito" López joined in on bass. After several minutes, the lights came up; González took it as a bad sign. "I thought they wanted me to stop playing," he recalled. Just the opposite: everyone in the control booth was keenly aware that the master still had "it."

And so it was with the rest of the cast. The inimitable Ibrahim Ferrer's pipes still hit the high notes without cracking. Cachaito's fingers plucked the upright bass with rhythmic and tonal precision. Cigar-chomping Compay Segundo's voice harmonized beautifully and he fingered the guitar effortlessly. Eliades Ochoa made his own self-styled guitar (a cross between a traditional six-string and the Cuban tres) sing sweet as ever. Omara Portuondo's voice seemed to have grown both bigger and more poignant with age, like wine in a barrel. Pío Leyva, (reunited with his former band-mate Comapy Segundo) and Manuel Licea ("Puntillita") provided priceless chorus harmonies. At the end of three weeks, three albums, The Buena Vista Social Club, Introducing Rubén González and Afro-Cuban All-Stars were complete, ready for mixing and mastering.

The story, of course, does not end there. Two years later, the production team reassembled for Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer. Eliades Ochoa, Compay Segundo and Omara Portuondo have since gone on to cut their own albums as well.

Then there were the legendary concerts in Amsterdam and at Carnegie Hall, which, along with the Ferrer sessions in Havana, provided acclaimed German filmmaker Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Paris Texas) with dozens of hours of filmed material for the documentary.

The Latin Boom

So, Buena Vista -- the music, the musicians, the film, the history, the vision -- now lives on CD, on film, on the Web, on the dance floor. The phenomenon occurs in the context of a remarkable renaissance of interest in things Latin in the United States and Europe. It seems clear that this has everything to do with the global era we live in which new economic forces spawn massive movements of capital, as well as human migration and the rapid exchange of information (most of it in the form of "culture," as in movies, music, etc.). Buena Vista could never have occurred without the presence and influence of Latin American immigrants in the "First World."

The fact that "tropical" music now seems to represent everything Latin is problematic, and speaks to a lingering superficiality in terms of cultural dialogue (especially in the U.S., where by far the largest numbers of Latinos have roots in Mexico, a land influenced by Cuba's tropical music, but with a vast legacy of its own genres and styles). But it is a dialogue nonetheless, one that has finally breached the old Cold War border between the U.S. and Cuba. Seen in the best possible light, the Western world has awakened to the fact that it does indeed share the globe with distinct and distinguished cultures deserving of attention and respect.

Arguably, Buena Vista is the crowning achievement, thus far, of the "world beat" era in both critical and commercial terms. It is a model of everything that is right with the global vision of culture, which also means that it avoids the pitfalls of the same: exoticizing or fetishizing of "Third World" artists and artifacts, superficial representations of history and culture.

Often times with such First-Third world co-productions, the stars wind up being the First World "discoverers" of the Third World talent. But Ry Cooder's dealings in this arena are of an entirely different nature. His name does not appear on the covers of the albums. Indeed, he seems no more than a session player that merely lends a hand on a couple of numbers. (He is more than that, of course his obvious joy at communing with the Cubans was one the driving passions of the project but he chose, consciously or not, to be a highly self-effacing presence in every way.) There are probably more people in the United States and Europe who've heard of The Buena Vista Social Club family of albums than of Ry Cooder, the American slide-guitarist. Credit has gone where credit was due.

Through this story, then, we return to the Island, one that we really all inhabit: the island of history, with all its twists and turns, its ironies and cruelties. This is the story of a dozen or so musicians that were trapped by history but who were also ultimately granted a reprieve, very late in their lives, from it. Experience, then, the music, the film, and this Web site. And whether this is your first exploration of the Cuban or the Latin American or the Global, or part of a lifelong identification, may this be just one stop along a never-ending journey through culture and its life force, history itself.


Rubén Martinez

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Musical artists appear courtesy of World Circuit/Nonesuch Records.
Film Images appear courtesy of Road Movies.