The beginning

Betto Arcos When you went into the studio to record the “Buena Vista Social Club,” what were your expectations given the circumstances?

Ry Cooder: The circumstances were that Nick Gold was trying to record some “Oriental” style songs with Africans from Mali. His thinking was that the sub-Saharan Africans who played guitar the Ali Farka Touré style had been part of an historical loop between Cuba and that part of Africa. A lot of the actual black American players had come from there. 

Then “High-Life” and 1950s Cuban music had interacted and had turned into something that both sides of the Atlantic were doing virtually the same way, with the exception of the clave - which the Africans don’t use -- and certain chord changes that the Africans don’t use. You can hear this. There’s a great example of rumba by Celia Cruz that was turned into an African tune. It’s just one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard. It’s (rumba) straightened out so it isn’t as clave-inflected but it has the same charts, the same horn line and even different words. 

Nick thought this would be a good thing to explore since it was somehow historically basic and hadn’t quite been looked at or done. He wanted to do it. He was enthusiastic and called me about it. I said, “Good God, yes. Now is the time, the opportunity is here.”

I went down there and when he picked me up at the airport he told me the Africans hadn’t shown up. They hadn’t made it, and we never found out why until years later.

“So what do we do?” he asked. “What should we do, what would you like to do?”  And I said, “I’d like to something. We’re here. Let’s dig it and pick up on it. You have the studio. Which musicians do you have?”

He said, “We’ve got Orlando ‘Cachaíto’ López. We have Juan de Marcos. He’s been working on this Afro-Cuban All-Star record, so we have him and his brothers and some of these percussion guys.” And we had Rubén González, who had been found -- he was presumed dead in the beginning, and said to be so arthritic that he couldn’t play. But he was found and he was playing. Thank God it wasn’t true. So we had enough of a group to get started. 

Eliades Ochoa had been the first call for this African recording because of Cuarteto Patria and the Oriental style. So he would be there, but it would no longer be quite the country song record idea because we didn’t have that focus. We could have anybody.  Then I said we’d better get Compay Segundo. So they made a call and he was in the country somewhere. I said, we'll get who we can. 

So, we arrived at the first day of recording. I don’t think we even recorded anything, but it was to say “Hello” and to look at who was going to be there. We walked in and saw Manuel ‘Puntillita’ Licea and Orlando López. Everybody was standing around wondering what was going to happen. They were wondering what it was we were up to. It’s not like we had a program or some piece of paper with a script. We couldn’t say to anybody, “This is exactly what we want to do.” What we wanted to do is make some music, record some songs. 

We had brought CDs and had some tunes in mind. Generally, they were taken from the middle period. Not as far back as (Miguel) Matamoros’ style or with the country style, and not as far forward as, say, Orquestra Aragón where it’s more organized and more orchestral. But something in the middle, which turns out to be what Compay and Arsenio Rodríguez had been doing in the ‘50s. The ‘50s was the golden age of music all over the world for some crazy, X-File-like reason I can’t quite understand.  If you want to look at the perfecting of a folk form, that’s exactly what Arsenio did -- the perfecting of a folk form, raising it to an artistic level from the simple folk level but still within the folk form. Taking him as a model and some of Compay’s ensemble records from the ‘50s as model, I asked, “Can we do this?”

 It’s very hard to jump-start a musical scene that is dead. If that music has been put to rest in a culture, you can’t get it back no matter what you do. Those people were sufficiently vigorous and alive to try to do it, even though this music is, like the music of Arsenio, not practiced anymore. Félix Chappotin is not actually done; no one actually does that in Cuba that I know of. I’ve seen a couple of bands who try but this is not a daily sound that lives in the air down there, any more than the blues of Howlin’ Wolf lives in Chicago. It just doesn’t. Other things develop, and that’s fine. But we were saying to these guys, “Let’s all get into it like you used to. Let’s try to get this blend going and a group thing going.”

Of course, they're very good at being members of a group even though a group never existed before. Compay and Rubén González had never been in the same room, probably on the same block.  Stylistically, this was pretty clearly defined. If you were Rubén González you were in cha-cha-cha bands with Enrique Jorrín, playing cha-cha-cha rhythms and chord progressions like he did. If you're Compay, you're doing the old song period, not cha-cha-cha music. He doesn’t do that. I guess I could have, but he wouldn’t have.  And Eliades would never have worked with Rubén or probably Manuel Licea, for instance, who’s a nightclub singer.

That’s not to say they haven’t sprung from the same tradition, the same way of life. They share more than they don’t share, but it had just never happened before. I thought this was the way to get around the problem of what to do with classic music. How do you do something when the records prove that it’s already been done, the great records already made? 

So, what do we do now?  Well, we have some of the components, we have everyone in the studio. Many of these records – Estrellas de Areíto is one of the highest statements of them -- have been made there; the tapes are in the vault. We have the humans who still live and can play, and we have this endless repertoire of beautiful songs as a resource. So, we have many good components, it ought to be possible. But I had learned from past experience that the way you have to go into a project like this is to get people out of their habitual ways of thinking. You’re not just going to do the automatic Compay record and the automatic cha-cha-cha record and run through the material yet again, because there are stacks of records like that. If you read your catalog, you’ll find lots of them. Somehow this had to turn into something that hopefully would give everybody a -fresh spontaneity so they wouldn’t just go chapter-and-verse on us. Everybody tends to do that; I do, we all do it. But we always have to try to beat that. 

So, without saying to anybody we’re going to do something different or handle this differently, as it develops in the beginning we just try to very slowly reshape things in certain ways. For instance, if they're used to having congas on a particular section, heavy congas, let’s take them out. Let’s see if we can swing it in a different way. If they're used to a horn section on a tune we'll just have a trumpet and let the coro be more pronounced rather than use trumpets. That was the idea. But, finally, it has to be said that what got recorded is whatever got recorded. I didn’t do too much directing. What I would say is, “Stop talking and let’s play. You guys like to talk and you like to discuss and argue, but we’d better keep this going if we can. Let’s see if we can get a sound momentum.”   

The sound has to be built up in the room to a certain extent. It’s like putting gas in a tank; you’ve got to fill it. You don’t want to have too much talk because talk takes the vibe away from the playing. But these guys had to get acquainted a bit, even though they were all known so well to each other.  Then I found that Compay seemed to know a lot about songs. He’s so encyclopedic. He knows better songs than I know.  I would say, “Listen, I like this song.”  He would say, “Incorrecto. That song is proper but I know a much better one. If you like that one there, you will like this one.  It is more correct and more advantageous than this other song.”  So I said, “Of course that’s right,” and got him to start thinking about things.

So, the elements began to fall into place. If you have talent like this it is … well, I’m not going to say it’s easy, but it is not a struggle. Just let people begin to express themselves. Of course, they were very enthusiastic anyway once they heard the playback. The playback tells the musicians a lot. It tells them that we’re trying to get the sound that enlarges the music and lets the music speak. They heard this good, big ambient playback and they got happy. That was important, I think.

The story behind the name

Betto Arcos: The name of the group ended up being a wonderful sort of ‘40s and ‘50s club, a members-only club.  Tell us about this. It is such a sweet story. I really love it. 

Ry Cooder:  Of course. Rubén wanted to play. We would start around 11a.m., but Rubén would come in every day around 9 and sit down at the piano and just wail. I figured I should run a little DAT tape while he was practicing and warming up. So I’d go in earlier and we’d turn this thing on because we could never get him to stop, and he didn’t want to. And I’d say, “Wait a minute. What’s that thing you just played?”

“Which one?” he goes. “I just played 10 songs. I don’t know.”  “It was number eight. Well, forget it.”

So we ran the DAT and went back and I checked and said, “Here’s a good one. What’s this one?” 

“It’s the ‘Buena Vista Social Club.’ It’s a song written by Cachaíto’s father, Orestes López. It is the mascot tune of the Buena Vista Social Club.” What club is that, I asked?  “It was social club where musicians used to hang out.”

Society in Cuba and in the Caribbean including New Orleans, as far as I know, was organized around these fraternal social clubs. There were clubs of cigar wrappers, clubs for baseball players and they’d play sports and cards -- whatever it is they did in their club -- and they had mascots, like dogs. At the Buena Vista Social Club, musicians went there to hang out with each other, like they used to do at musicians’ unions in the U.S., and they’d have dances and activities.

“Buena Vista Social Club” is a great song and a difficult tune to play. It was a bit artful and a bit outside the norm and also special to this little group. We recorded it and then Nick Gold thought we should call the record this name. It should be the thing that sets it apart. It was a kind of club by then. We’d been in there seven weeks and were recording; everybody was hanging out and we had rum and coffee around 2 in the afternoon. It felt like a club, so let’s call it that. That’s what gave it a handle.

Then, we went looking for the club -- as you see in the film -- and, well it wasn’t there any more and nobody could agree on where it had been in the first place. It was here, it was there. Buena Vista used to be a neighborhood up on a hillside above the town where there were nice breezes and it was cool and pleasant. It was quite beautiful. I don’t have any idea where it was, but everybody swears they know. 

The impact of Buena Vista

Betto Arcos: The “Buena Vista Social Club” has had such a wonderful impact in the music industry especially in this area of so-called world music -- all music from all over except the U.S., I guess. As an artist who’s been around for a long time, recording with such greats as Gabby Pahinui, and with your collaboration with the giant of Mali Ali Farka Touré, and with Flaco Jimenéz, you've always been around these larger-than-life musicians. You say in the liner notes this has been like you’ve studied all your life to get to this point. How do you see the success of Buena Vista as a whole? Four years or what is it? Four or five years?

Ry Cooder: It’s four …

Betto Arcos:four years since you started.

Ry Cooder:  Of course it’s wonderful to see this because I like music for personal reasons. I always feel that if it’s great, if we admire it and enjoy it, other people will like it too. In the old times, back when I used to make records, I used to think about this. I thought I’d try with Flaco, for instance, a Tex-Mex idea that I had. In those days accordions were not so popular. I had some gospel or R&B singing grafted onto to it and I thought this would be great. Everybody looked at me like was crazy. 

“You can’t do that,” Randy Newman said to me one day. He said, “Warner Bros. is going to hate this. This accordion thing, what are you doing?”  Then we’d go out and do these shows -- this was in the ‘70s, it was date night -- and couples in the audience looked up and were just blank-faced. I thought I’d guessed wrong again. 

I don’t really think I guessed wrong. I think I was right.  So, we kept trying. Finally, with Buena Vista, something worked. With hindsight it looks to me now as if the audience got there for this sound and this idea, this story. And, of course, the music is the highest quality.  This is the greatest.

When you talk about what’s around today in 2000 and what we have to listen to, old records are great. But everybody wants to believe that somehow they’re part of a living scene, that they’re in on it somehow. No one wants to think it’s all died and gone to heaven. Nobody wants to think that, it’s just too depressing. So it looks to me that the audience got there, wherever they were and whoever they may be.

I think it’s got something to do with everybody listening to music a lot now. There are a lot of ways people hear music. These have increased thanks to records and radio, and that’s all positive and good. Then along this project comes, and of course we had media interest.

You have to have that because you can’t be ignored by the media or no one will ever hear your record. Fifty thousand SOM records a year are released. That’s a figure I’ve heard quoted. So what is the poor consumer supposed to do? They hear something, they perhaps try it. Or they don’t hear all the other records that they love. What do you do for them?  How does this work?

We got very lucky with our media interest, and the world interest in Cuba all played a part. It was important. For me, I feel like finally we got there. This sound, this vibe and the level of artistry here is so compelling and it is so rich and mysterious. These are great qualities, not necessarily the typical qualities of records that are popular. These musicians are 90 years old, 80 years old playing obscure songs in Spanish. That’s somewhat archaic.  This kind of antique ambient sound is something you would have expected to become so popular. Never. 

People say, “Oh you knew this was going to happen,” and I say, “Are you kidding me?”  Find me one reason why this would have been popular; there’s no logic. It’s just that it’s great, and everybody picked up on it. 

That’s the story. The film helped a lot, of course, because you have to demonstrate what the story is. Then people can say, “Oh, I see.” We don’t see musicians, we generally don’t know the lives of musicians. We don’t know who makes these records. You take a record home but you don’t know what you have there. You have some pretty tunes, but you don’t ever know too much about what goes on behind it, the kind of lives that are lead, what people think and feel. The film demonstrated who these people really are and you draw closer to them and you become interested in them. 

When Ibrahim Ferrer walks out on stage now, there’s a roar from the crowd because they feel they know him, and they feel that they’re close to him in some way. It’s an emotional idea they have, which is what a great star really used to be -- someone people identified with, like Nat Cole and similar persons.

We had no expectations, except Nick Gold, I have to say. He seemed to know. We got it done, took it home and listened to it, and Nick said, “We’ve got something here.  This is going to work, this is going to be great.” 

I’m always skeptical. So I said, “You know, it'll just be one of these nice things and 4,000, 5,000 or 10,000 people will buy it.” But he was right, of course, and it took off in Europe, which was where it was released first. When the Europeans went mad for it then I thought ah, it may work. But how do you sell Latin music in this country? This is not Latin pop, it’s not rock. What do you do with it?  How do you get it into the mechanism of musical commerce?

it seemed to just permeate. It didn’t go down any of the typical roads of promotion. It just got there on its own, with the help of the media. Without media help, you can’t do anything.

Why the media became interested in this record is pretty unusual, but there was a story to tell and there was suddenly this explosion of interest in Cuba and that had a lot to do with it. 

Music that has opened borders

Betto Arcos: It occurred to me that the record -- this whole trilogy, including the Afro-Cuban All Stars and Rubén Gonzalez’ CD now, we have quintet, I guess -- we have five CDs that have done what politicians haven’t been able to do.

Ry Cooder: Well, yeah. If you’re taught to hate and fear a people or a country and it works, it’s because or your ignorance of that country. You have no contact with it, nor do you know what you're hating and fearing. Then you have to say, after listening to this music, who is it you are afraid of? Are you afraid of Rubén? He frightens you? He’s a threat to you? Come on!  

These people have such a gift for everybody that it is unmistakable. Listen to one note and there’s so much to offer. Of course, this is what politicians are incapable of doing. What do they do? They sit around and figure out how to make deals, how to get Coca Cola down there, how to get the money out. It’s a mess, it’s a snarly mess. What the music can do is cut through that in an instant because you receive this music, you feel it. You don’t think about it.  You don’t use your head, you just use your whole self. You hear it and you feel it and you say, I feel good. That’s what everybody tells me.

I get up in the morning, I put on Buena Vista or whichever of these records, and I feel really great. I feel buoyant and encouraged and it brightens the corner of the day. That’s what music is supposed to do. It’s not supposed to scare you or hurt you or upset you in some crazy way. It’s supposed to make you feel encouraged and connected to something. That’s what these Cubans are really good at doing with their music; they’ve done it for themselves as a country for a very long time in a very artful, highly crafted way. 

This is a hell of a deal here. Many people love Oriental music or Indian music because it has these components in it. In an entirely different way of course, Buena Vista is designed to do that as well -- to do something nice for you. This is a very positive thing. 

We took the “Buena Vista Social Club” to the United Nations, and did a lunch concert in the Security Council room, not the big room but the next one down. We had all these career diplomats on their lunch hour running in with their brief cases and their families trying to get a seat. I was sitting there with a fever of expectation and had made a stage and rented some instruments. It was the day of the evening show so they had about an hour to do it and just started in. The people went nuts.

Oh boy, I tell you there was not a dry eye in the place. We knew these career diplomats at the U.N. have another kind of hearing because they're there for a reason. We later heard from individuals who came forward and said, “We’ve worked all day every day trying to make things better in the world.” My God, they're not there trying to move up the ladder to the next fancy job. These are committed people. 

I spoke to people from Ghana, I spoke to people from Mexico, I spoke to a South African diplomat and this meant a lot to them. This was great. It made them feel like they had gotten something back from their work. It’s thankless, tough work at the U.N. Can you imagine the stuff they have to wade through and deal with daily?

This show was interesting. For our musicians it was great because they felt involved. As Cubans, they have to think about this. It’s a very, very politicized country after all. They have to think about stuff like this all the time -- what their lives consist of in terms of hardships and the embargo and the future, let alone the past; for some of these older people, the past has been rocky road. 

Ibrahim Ferrer

Betto Arcos: Talk about the second project, “Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer.” This really helped to cement Buena Vista as a whole, as a larger project. Then put the spotlight on one wonderful artist of the club, of the group, an unsung artist, if you will, of the golden age of Cuban music in the 50’s.

Ry Cooder: Ibrahim Ferrer was my first choice to make a record following Buena Vista because we could see what we had with this guy.  Ferrer voices everything here as far as I’m concerned. You can play as good as you want but you have to be able to sing. This music is vocal and the secret to communicating this is in singing. What we don’t see or hear too much of anymore is this bolero quality, this gauzy kind of transparent inward voice that he has, because that’s the kind of guy he is. He’s an inward man, he’s not a showman like Compay. He’s not an actor so much, he’s just a zenned-out character. 

That’s one part of the reason he did not succeed at all as a musician in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He was not a very overt character. In this age they were starting to discover that the singer, the individual performer, was going to be the focus for success. For instance, when Beny Moré came along there had never been a star like that in Cuban music or even perhaps in Latin music. He was on the level of Elvis -- a heroic character and a beautiful looking guy. Tremendously charismatic, it’s said, and quite a showman in all of this and a great talent, of course. There was nobody like him. Ibrahim Ferrer is nothing like that. He’s -- I want say hidden -- but he’s quite an introvert and lives in his head. You can see it in his face.

When I saw him in the studio the first time, Juan de Marcos brought him in because we had said, “Can’t somebody sing Boleros? We have everything here but that. We need to hear some ballads here.”

Bolero has turned into this kind of rapid fire for vibrato, a nervous thing that I personally can’t stand. But this is hard to find, more rare than the Sonero voice in Cuba or in Latin America. Juan de Marcos came back a couple of hours later with this obviously very poor Cuban. He’s a little shabby looking with the face of an old blues singer, with the eyes that are always dilated and a stillness. When you see that you think to yourself, OK we’ve got something here. What’s he do? Oh, he sings. Oh, get him to the microphone, let’s see what happens. 

He opens his mouth and out comes Dos Gardenias and you think, Oh-my-gosh! I’ve been waiting to hear this all my life. Now we’ve got something. Now we can go.

I’m a great lover of ballads. Personally, this is what I want to hear. I love all the rhythms stuff; it’s fun its kinetic, but in myself what I love is ballads and heartbroken tunes.

Ferrer can paint the picture for you. He can set it out. It’s visual, it’s special. It’s amazing to hear a guy at this age,70 odd years, with the top end of his voice undiminished or unaffected. It is the first thing that goes as you get older; your top end goes. What you need for Bolero is the top end because all of the air is up there.  Sonero is down in your chest or in your nose somewhere.  It’s a power voice like Puntillita’s. You can do that on into your life, like Compay, but to sing Bolero you’ve got to have clarity, and it’s very rare in an older person. 

So I got all excited and every day he would say, “Thank you for the day.”  He’d say, “Do you want me to come back?”  “Yes, I insist on it.”  “Oh, OK.  If you say so.”  “Yes, I say so.”  Every day, until finally he began to get the hint that we wanted to have him there. He was part of it. I said, “You're here now. You’re with us now.” This began to sink in slowly. 

He had been so disappointed and so turned down in his life that he just had no expectations whatsoever. Then of course, it got more enjoyable for him and he relaxed a bit and began to feel like he was part of something. It was tremendous. All the songs he sings on Buena Vista where you hear his harmony are just so beautiful. It’s an evocation of feelings. It’s not enough just to sing the notes or play the notes; you have to evoke a mood, a feeling that the people had and have had in this music that sets it apart from just uncles out on the porch. 

On records you have to go beyond the uncle thing. When you’re sitting with uncle and he’s singing and playing, it’s wonderful. But when we take the record home, that’s a different experience. You have to have something a little more essential come through and that’s what Ibrahim’s voice carries -- this feeling of essence -- all the time, whatever he sings. 

Then the program became let’s make an album with Ibrahim and let’s look at some of these ballads and let’s get the horns in there and the strings in here. Oh, we’re going to have a big time. And, it was so. I have never had so much fun in all my life, to have Demetrio Muñiz work on the horn charts and the strings charts. It started to sound like Ravel some of the time.

It was unbelievable to get in this room the Beny Moré lineup, which is five saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones and Beny’s conductor Generoso Jiménez who brought the charts in for these things.  So there’s Beny Moré up in the corner with some 40-year-old charts. He passed them out and here came “Como Fue” to just blow you off your chair. 

This is quite something, to know that it’s being done right and he’s going to sing it properly and convey all that it can and should convey, so that you don’t go home and say, well that was fun but you can’t do Boleros anymore. If it were just gone, it would have been tragic. But with Ibrahim, everybody knows this now because they come to his shows and they mob him and they yell for him and they know that they’re hearing the real thing.  And there is nothing like the real thing. As rare as it is now there’s still nothing like it. It’s transforming, somehow.

Betto Arcos: I love that idea you told me a few weeks ago that he has this liquid, chocolate-syrup voice …

Ry Cooder: poured out of the bottle. That’s the Bolero voice. Then there was Alberto … what’s his name Vargas? From Mexico?

Betto Arcos: Pedro Vargas..

Ry Cooder: Pedro Vargas, excuse me. You would hate to think that it’s gone and you can’t hear it anymore. Thank goodness for these guys. I say this all the time because I get to do this, right? We have been a part of this. Sit there and listen. It’s an incredible experience. 

By the way, we just mixed “Buena Vista Social club” as a five-point surround DVD. This means that you have three speaker sources in front of you and two behind you so that, effectively, when you listen you hear yourself in the middle of it. This works perfectly for Buena Vista because it is so ambient. It was basically recorded that way. So there’s a new product that’s going to be available in the fall. When you play it on your DVD player, it’s just unbelievable. I love the stereo, but everybody’s going to be very happy with the surround sound. It’s quite good. 

Los Zafiros

Betto Arcos: Talk about some of the artists you brought on for this recording as well as some of the people that you've really appreciated like Los Zafiros, Manual Galbán and Omara Portuondo. Talk about this incredible song they did together.

Ry Cooder: Los Zafiros was not typically Cuban, it wasn’t typically anything. They were just a bunch of bad boys from the Cayo Hueso neighborhood – low-riders we would have known them as – vatos locos, and rough characters. So they sing in this kind of low-rider-of-the-times style, which is an American East Coast R&B mixed with Cuban. It’s incredible. You would want something like this to exist. 

I had always imagined that there might be such a thing. I had never known if it did exist. You could hear it happening in the Spanish Harlem music from New York, and you’d think, I bet somebody has done this. I bet somehow there is some Cuban stuff that has this groove in it, and these voices, the doo-wop harmonies. Of course, it turned out that they had done it. But they had all died. 

There was a documentary floating around with the one remaining musician before he died -- Chino, the one with the beautiful lead voice, not the high one but the middle -- telling about the old times. In this documentary there’s this black-and-white footage of a guitar player doing this twangy stuff and I thought, “My God! The  Duane Eddy of Cuba.” It’s fun -- twanging, playing the bass strings and the electric guitar. It’s really great. 

Nick Gold was there on some trip and simply asked whatever happened to Manuel Galbán, the guitar player. He was told,  “He lives over there, down that street.”  So Nick goes down and he’s sitting there playing the guitar but he didn’t have an amp anymore. His guitar was a Fender Telecaster and he was a little bit nervous and uncertain. He didn’t know if he could still do it.

So we brought him in because we thought we could do a couple of these Zafiros tunes. It’s not stylistically where he’s at necessarily, but it would be fantastic to try this because they’re great songs – “La Ultima Cita” and the other one “Herido de Sombras”, which is an incredible, beautiful song. So Galbán comes in and lays it all out for everybody because he was Zafiros arranger. We had him and Gema Cuatro, the girl quartet, sing the vocal parts because we didn’t have Zafiros anymore. That was quite a thrill. 

After we did the first tune, I just thought, Well this is just pure heaven! Now we’re moving into this hidden element of music from the ‘50s in Cuba that is a little less about the typical kind of popular music or the tourist music or the nightclub music. This is something in which I’m more interested personally, the sub-forms that exist that contain something extra, something strange and unexpected. This is Galbán personified. He takes these ripping solos and I have never heard a Telecaster sound like that. He’s a fantastic guy and very much alive, ready to do whatever it takes.

At some point I said, “Just tell me where you got some of this from. What were you listening to?”  It was Duane Eddy, which is sensational. Absolutely sensational. I’ve played with Duane and I know him.

If you look at the line of the surf guitar, the twanging guitar and the electric trace guitar such as played by Arsenio and Niño Rivera, there is some kind of weird, post-bop -- watered-down bee-bop, popularized bee-bop -- cocktail vibe in that music. Of course, we would all give body parts to hear the Zafiros again. Fortunately, they recorded and it’s available. People who haven’t heard that record certainly should. It’s very heavenly, very beautiful. 

Omara Portuondo

Betto Arcos:  Talk about Omara Portuondo. I think this is one of the most amazing and touching moments in recording and in the film.

Ry Cooder: Well “Silencio” was the thing you wished and hoped for. You may know tunes and study, and I have records, but the inside, hidden true thing has to come from these people, such as with Compay. If you mention a tune, he says it’s a half-baked tune and he knows a really good tune. With Ibrahim, he knows what he likes to sing. The more we worked with him, the more I found that he was recalling things he had liked, that he had done. 

One day he’s in the studio messing around -- you have to allow for this improvisational time so that things can be recalled and everybody can rest a bit and reflect on things -- and he started doing “Silencio.” They started to play it and I thought, Here we go, here’s the pay dirt!

This tune is like a stairway. It steps up step by step and you go up and up and up and up. It’s like a Hawaiian tune I used to do with Gabby Pahinui. So we run out into the studio saying, stop right here. Let’s check this out. How do you this as a duet? What’s the best way to do this? 

Ibrahim and Omara are very good together. Their singing is complimentary because her voice has a certain lower mass as a woman’s voice, and his voice has a certain lack of mass, higher for a man. Where you might be used to hearing the man in the melody and the woman in the harmony, they can flip it around and it gives it a kind of unique harmonic quality.

I’m interested in vocal harmony because this is where things really start to happen. Two people harmonizing produce one sound. There’s a fusion of harmonics and timing and thought. It is an incredible sound on record. It’s also something we love, like the Everly Brothers. Why is that?  Two is better, I think. I’m a sucker for it on record, I think it’s just fabulous. 

So, he sings a verse, she sings a verse. We quickly mapped it out and then they do it. It was A matter of getting a take that contains that strange sort of floating quality, a searching quality. You want the song to feel as though you're coming upon it, and everybody -- the musicians and the listeners -- needs to discover this at the same time. If it’s too programmatic and sounds like they’ve done it a hundred times already, the magic goes away. 

Around 4 in the afternoon the film crew arrives -- Wim Wenders and eight people. Now, we’re filming. Let’s get the lights, camera over here. I’m thinking, “You can’t come in now, you can’t come in now. We’re about to get this tune. We’ve worked all day and part of yesterday to make it. Please stay out in the hallway, and don’t crash your equipment and don’t make a lot of noise.”

Being a sensitive guy he says, “Sure. OK, we’re being quiet here.” Then they came in and we did it again and they filmed it, but we had to pray that we were going to get that take. There’s no easy way to do this. The mood must be there or the whole thing becomes a bit empty. There were other good takes of it, maybe three or four other good takes, but this one has the drama, the increasing drama in each stage of it, each phrase. It’s a classic. I’ve heard other versions of this song but I don’t like them as much as this.  This one’s got something. 

When you do this on stage people go from a happy laughing to tears. I’ve seen it happen in an instant. Women especially, they just start crying. Bang you’re on it!  Silencio” woops. Everybody starts to cry. You know they have got it. This is an important element in this music.  Everybody gets to go away feeling like something happened to them. 

Betto Arcos: Well, it did to me, Ry. I heard this thing and I said, “My God, where the hell am I? In heaven or nearby?”

Ry Cooder: Very , very near.

About the film

Betto Arcos: I’ve got to hear it from you, even though I’ve heard it elsewhere, how this film came about. And what’s this about you putting a CD of “Buena Vista” into Wim Wenders’ bag? Or something like that?

Ry Cooder:  Exactly. It was in the early days when the record was just finished and Nick Gold was starting to make them for the European market before he had the deal to release it over here. I was around Wim. He’s a collector of music and carries music. He’s an itinerant, nomadic guy, always going somewhere. He’s got a little bag full of CDs and tapes he’s been collecting for years. 

So I said to him in passing, casually, We’ve just done this thing, its interesting Cuban music. I don’t want say too much but check it out and see what you think. It had occurred to me that if we didn’t get this documented on film -- the people and the place, the process of doing this music that we had seen -- that we would be missing the boat. I’ve been doing this a long time now, 35 odd years, and I’ve seen it over and over again. The experience I had in the company of musicians wherever they are, is so much a part of the appreciation and the enjoyment. The poor audience doesn’t get to go there. They don’t get to sit on the beach with Gabby or in the studio with Flaco, and they just don’t know what I know. I’m sorry about that.

I used to find when making my records and taking them home it was very flat for me, very uninspiring. So I thought, what’s missing? What’s the matter? Is it that I’m  just not getting there or is it something else? I finally realized that no matter what I did, whether I made a good record or a bad record or played well or had good ideas or bad ideas, there was something about the experience that wasn’t getting across. For me, I thought it was vivid enough when I was recording with Gabby Puahuni or Ali Farka Touré.

In the old days, we didn’t think about filming these sessions. We just wouldn’t have thought about it. Now you do it, everybody does. People film every day of their lives. They’ve turned it into product. So I thought, somebody has to film this. We’ve done “Buena Vista,” but now that we’re going to do Ibrahim, more things will happen. There’s so much beauty down there, there’s so much precious stuff and you always have a certain sense of urgency because everybody’s getting older, the buildings are falling down. There’s a moment here that’s going to change -- it certainly did -- and drift into the modern world. It will change life in Cuba and change what we see every day. We had to get this on film because it would make a lot of difference.

So Wim was the logical choice. I know him and I work with him and I thought he'll dig it, he’ll pick up on it. Then the question was, does he have time? Can he do it? There was some reason why he wasn’t going to start working immediately on another project and he had a couple of months available. So he said, “OK. We'll take our crew, camera, sound recording gear, no big deal. All right let’s go.”

Four days later, we’re down there and of course he saw what I had seen. He saw the place and he saw the localities and the light and the people, and he went to work. What he would do is take folks out during the day, when we we’re recording but we didn’t need them, and take them somewhere and fill in and talk to them. He got this rhythm going. Then we took a look at his footage and realized that he needs to go somewhere.

So we took everybody to Amsterdam and did these two concerts in a nice theater there. We got everybody together on stage with not very much preparation. After all, a lot of people had never done this as a stage show; we had made a record, for crying out loud. Now we’re expecting it to be a stage show! It was a bit hectic. 

Carnegie Hall

Ry Cooder:  Then we took a look at the footage and said it is interesting but it’s transitional. Now we need to bring it to some closure point, some greater realization. What is that? It’s Carnegie Hall, that’s what it is. Everybody knows that. As I say in the film, I think everybody knows Carnegie Hall is the place to end up. Symbolic. New York is the destination for them because they wanted to go there.  Everybody knew. When are we going, they kept saying to me.  Are we going to Carnegie Hall? I want to go to Carnegie Hall. I want to go to New York. 

So we had to take this on. It was a monumental task, to get 25 people out of Havana or from wherever they were - Compay Segundo, for instance, was already on tour -- into the United States through the State Department bureaucracy, through the Immigration bureaucracy into New York City, to get to Carnegie hall, film the thing, record the thing. I’m sure I don’t need to go into the details. It’s quite AN undertaking. It cost a fortune.

By that time, Warner Bros. and Nonesuch Records were very much into it because they had seen it was a great thing.  It was taking off, it was special, it was unique and to play Carnegie Hall is even a greater thing. And it was. It was a fantastic experience. It was cathartic. 

There were people on the sidewalk trying to buy tickets for $2,000 and not able to get them. People went crazy. The audience saw something they’d never seen: this moment of arrival of people from a long time past, from another kind of life. The film shows Ibrahim’s sudden realization of where he is, what is happening. What a moment that is. The concert was full of these realizations: we’ve arrived.

That’s exactly what this felt like and that made it something special. It wasn’t just another, how-do-you-like-me-now, wink and nod and here’s my hit. This is what most people see most of the time when they go to shows. They see a programmatic thing with commerce behind it and style, and that’s fine. I’m not being mean, but this was a little different because there was a sense the audience had gotten there and the musicians had gotten there and they had met each other at Carnegie Hall. It also had other implications, mostly of meeting and greeting and of a sudden awareness something was in the air.

Fortunately, it went into the air and on film and onto the tape machine. It was a great, very great thing. We lined all 20 people up on the sidewalk outside Carnegie Hall for the shot of the foyer of the building -- a beautiful building with the marquee showing “Buena Vista Social Club.” Folks coming up the street on the way home from work around 5 in the afternoon, would say, “Oh my God, is this them? They’re here?”  It was not that well publicized, they sold the tickets in an hour. TV cameras and people running over damn near caused a riot out on the street in front Carnegie Hall. Everybody was laughing and just carrying on and having the greatest time.

The beautiful moment everybody reflects on is Ibrahim and Omara singing “Silencio” and dancing on stage. Spontaneity like that was just responding and being Cubans. The whole thing was incredible. Since than, I’ve met people who were there and they speak about it like they had seen an epiphany. You can’t get any better than that.  That’s music, that’s doing your music and that’s why I always say I feel like I’m paid up. I’ve been able to be part of this scene, had a hand in it and it’s a great thing, better than anybody’s expectations. Yet, hopefully I’ll be able to do this some more and see this continue to unfold. It’s been a lot of good for a lot of people.

A Family Journey

Betto Arcos: Finally Ry, this has also been sort of a family journey, right?

Ry Cooder: Yes.

Betto Arcos: Do you want to say something? About the family thing, I mean.

Ry Cooder:  Sure.

Betto Arcos:  Susan was involved in the photography, which has now also influenced her artwork.

Ry Cooder: Yeah. That photograph went around the world, the one of Ibrahim walking into the studio. It was a moment that this picture wraps all up. It tells the entire story of the moment when the person, Ibrahim, is unaware of what’s about to happen. He doesn’t even see us. She took this picture standing out in front, where the old Ford used to be, and he’s walking, he’s coming. This was the second day, when he had his cat clothes on instead of shoe-shine clothes, and he’s walking into himself looking down and thinking whatever he’s thinking, but as yet unaware, unprepared. The whole street has this stillness to it. If you go down there right now, today it doesn’t look like that.

Things have happened down there, not necessarily just because of this record, but in a larger sense, things have happened. Everybody’s a lot more aware, a lot more involved. Modern times have come since we made this record, but at that moment the photograph worked because it tells that story. You can look at it and you know. You don’t have to think too hard about it. 

Suzy was there. She also shot video of the original sessions, which are amazing to watch because you've got Compay teaching me how to do things and telling me where I was screwing up, and somebody takes the bass and says it should go like this and the other guy says no it shouldn’t. It’s great to see.

Joachim came and of course played a great part in it for me as a percussionist because of his ability to compliment music and give it a groove. He puts a certain emphasis in his hand-drums that they don’t do. They were all interested in that, and gathered around him to check him out on that Turkish …

Betto Arcos:  Dumbek?

Ry Cooder: whatever the heck it is. It’s Iranian stuff that he had learned from an Iranian dumbek master. He absorbed and he learned from them and was embraced by them. We all have, as a family, and what can be greater than that?

Joachim has gone on to learn this music and incorporate in into stuff that he’s interested in with his band and Radio Bemba, and it’s paid off for him. This is what you need to do as a young musician -- you need to sit with masters and be able to be near them physically. It’s a molecular thing. 

I had that same experience as a kid to a certain extent, just sitting near these people. You need to be physically close to them while they do what they do because they impart something to you that you can’t quantify, having to do with tone production. But you have to become aware of it otherwise your tone production will never include this and you will always be, like, on the wrong side of the glass and looking in, seeing something but saying, where is this coming from? How is this being created; I don’t understand it?

There’s so much added to you as a person by this kind of contact. But it has to happen at a young age. Joachim was 18 when we did this record and I think back to when I was that age and I started to hang around some blues players and some hillbillies, and it made all the difference. You then have a kind of understanding that makes you able to communicate and to produce the essence that I’ve been talking about, the thing that makes the music wonderful and makes it live.

You can’t get it in a book, I’m sorry to say.  They don’t teach it in school. They can’t, very well. They can tell you about it, but in order to do it you have to feel it. In order to feel it you have to absorb that feeling from another person. That’s my little theory. It’s the old teacher/acolyte kind of setup, where you sit with somebody doing whatever they do. We would drink coffee, we’d go walk around, talk, smoke cigars and in that process end up playing, which they like to do, so they do it all the time. The process gives you this thing, I’m happy to say. 

By the way, I always encourage people to go down to Cuba.  I’m not supposed to say this, but go and have a good time, before it all either falls into the ocean or gets replaced by a “City Walk” operation. Who knows what’s going to happen down there? It’s hard to say.

We as a family have had the greatest time we can have down there and I truly hope we can go on doing this, somehow or another. 



The Film | The Music | The Musicians | The Gallery | The Scene
Home |
Site Credits
Musical artists appear courtesy of World Circuit/Nonesuch Records.
Film Images appear courtesy of Road Movies.