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Buena Vista Social Club: A City in Time

It’s a call that, for nearly twenty years now, has trailed tourists strolling Old Havana: “Buena Vista Social Club!” So the local street hustlers cry, following the curious Germans and Canadians, and now yanquis too, who walk these blocks to ogle once-grand colonial buildings moldering in the heat. The tourists, passing convivial Cubans playing dominoes or congas on their stoops, know little either of Spanish or of these Africa-born rhythms—but they, like the hustlers approaching them with devilish smiles and offers of cigars or sex, know the phrase “Buena Vista Social Club.” Sometimes the hustlers repeat these words just to get the gringos’ attention; sometimes they do so to lead them to a nearby bar, in a city that has recently gained a lot of these that target foreigners, whose house band in their guayabera shirts will inevitably let rip, within a few songs and alongside timeworn Cuban classics like “Guantanamera,” with the chiming minor chords of one of the old-sounding tunes that have become synonymous with Cuba since only the 1990s.

Those newer Cuban classics—the best-known of which, “Chan Chan,” has become as much a staple of coffee-shop playlists worldwide as any favorite by Bob Marley or the Beatles—all come from one record. That record, of course, is Buena Vista Social Club. First released in September 1997, this deceptively simple album of fresh recordings of sounds from the golden age of Cuban music in the 1940s and ’50s—as played by some of that era’s leading survivors, and produced and marketed with brilliance by the American guitarist Ry Cooder and the English impresario Nick Gold—was an instant hit among the public-radio-listening classes of North America and Europe. It quickly became the best-selling record in the history of “world music,” that curious genre–cum–marketing tag invented in the eighties to peddle the folk cultures of earth’s poorer nations to record buyers in its richer ones. But Buena Vista Social Club—which went on to sell over eight million copies worldwide, spawn several companion records by the group’s members, and lend its name to an acclaimed documentary film by a major world director—also became something else: a bona fide cultural phenomenon.

Its sounds and images became, in short, a key means by which people around the world came to imagine the charms of an island whose Communist leaders, in the nineties, had just grudgingly decided, after the fall of the Soviet Union and with it the disappearance of their economy’s main patron in Moscow, to try to attract the funds of foreign tourists as a replacement. Buena Vista’s sounds became the score through which those tourists, or those who dreamed of joining them, nurtured their longing for a honeyed bygone world—a place of deep style and superb music and cars as big as boats, sundered from them forever by time, as well as, if they lived in the United States, by the events of 1959. Fidel Castro’s revolution, and Washington’s response to his leftism, had turned what had been Americans’ favorite vacation spot into a forbidden land. For many U.S. baby boomers especially, the photo on the cover of this lustrously packaged CD—of a jaunty, slim-hipped man in a white cap, striding a lively-looking street past a baby-blue ’56 Chevrolet—conjured not merely a place of magic but their own childhoods.

The story of how all this happened—and how Wim Wenders came to turn that photo, and those thoughts, into an even more evocative 1999 film—began in 1996. That’s when Cooder received a call from Gold, the pioneering head of London’s World Circuit Records. The pair had worked together before: their 1994 Talking Timbuktu project had brought Cooder—a musician born of sixties rock but with a yen for “roots music,” all kinds—to the West African nation of Mali to find long-buried links between the music of that country’s own guitar hero, Ali Farka Touré, and the blues. Now Gold hoped to do something similar in Cuba. He told Cooder he wanted to join two other Malian guitarists with Cuban players of instruments like the guitar’s born-in-Cuba cousin, the tres, to see what would happen. The Malians, in the event, didn’t make it to Havana on account of not getting visas, so Gold and Cooder changed tack. They gathered, with the help of the Cuban folklorist and bandleader Juan de Marcos González, a larger group of storied Cuban musicians—many of whom were in their seventies and eighties, many of whom hadn’t performed in years—in a historic Havana recording studio for the sessions that would become Buena Vista Social  Club, the raw tapes of which Cooder brought back to Los Angeles, where he happened to be readying to work, in the spring of 1996, with Wenders on the score of another film (the LA noir The End of Violence). The Buena Vista film was born when Cooder played those raw tapes for Wenders, who was as excited by what he heard as Cooder was.

By then, these two had also been working together for years—their relationship began when this stalwart of the New German Cinema made his big American breakthrough in 1984. On Paris, Texas, Wenders asked Cooder to furnish, with his keening slide guitar, the bent-note color that helps the film’s dusty motelscapes sing. Now it was the turn of Wenders—an auteur who has for his whole career toggled between directing documentaries and features—to make a film in response to music, rather than the other way around. In 1998, with the Buena Vista Social Club record already a hit, Cooder told Wenders that he was heading back to Havana. He was going to produce a new album with the Buena Vista group, albeit this time featuring one of its breakout stars in particular—the brilliant singer Ibrahim Ferrer, whom Juan de Marcos González had found shining shoes on an Old Havana street in 1996, but who had first made his name in the fifties singing both ballads and ribald improvised riffs over rapid montunos with that era’s foremost vocalist and showman, Beny Moré, and whom Cooder, reaching for an analogy Americans might dig, dubbed “a Cuban Nat King Cole.” Wenders flew to Havana with a tiny crew and his wife, Donata. His loose plan, with the help of a couple of small digital cameras they also carried—a new technology that he later credited with making his film possible—was to shoot Ferrer’s recording sessions, and whatever stories he found around them, with minimal obtrusive fuss.

What Wenders found during his three weeks in Havana—a city he’d never visited before—became one of the best-loved documentaries of our time.

His process in Cuba began like his film does: Wenders followed his curious Virgil into a world to which Cooder himself—who in the movie’s opening scene is shot on an antique motorcycle, rolling toward Havana’s EGREM studios, as he recounts in voice-over how the Buena Vista project happened—relates not as a native or an expert but as an enamored visitor. It’s inside the ancient studio’s walls that Wenders’ film snaps to. His camera, poking through the door, finds an astonishing sight: two beautiful Afro-Cuban singers of a certain age, facing each other behind two old microphones. The man is a cat-faced charmer who wears, beneath his cap, a calmly wry look. This is Ibrahim Ferrer—the same dandy striding from the photo on Buena Vista’s album cover. The woman has the cheekbones and carriage of a queen; her suitably regal name is Omara Portuondo. The pair, matching their voices’ timbres with easeful grace, sing in rounded Cuban Spanish about silence and love and death. They wear expressions at once tender and serious as they gaze bemusedly at each other and the lush notes between them. The camera, as if transfixed, slowly circles them.

Seeing these two sing, surrounded by attentive old musicians who accent their voices with perfect tones, one feels that one wouldn’t mind watching them do so for the next two hours. But when the spell is broken—when in a different sort of music documentary we might expect to return to Cooder, or a historian of Cuban music, to explain what we’ve just seen and where these people fit into its story—what happens is something different. Instead of diving into exposition—of which this film has little—Wenders takes us back outside the studio, into Havana, to where these characters live. Wenders has said that his guiding concept was simply to “try to do justice to these amazing people and let the music speak for itself.” The way he initially found to do this was to visit with the musicians in their own contexts.

This is how we hear Ferrer, patrolling his block to talk jive that sounds like his impromptu verses on the song “Candela,” recount how his orphaned childhood in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba explains “porque soy como soy” (“why I am how I am”), and how we hear from Portuondo, ambling through the Centro Habana barrio where she was raised, about how her father, a baseball star here in the fifties, sang love songs to her mother after lunch. It’s how we glimpse the tres player and backup singer extraordinaire Compay Segundo—a picture, at ninety, of bawdy virility, who waves his cigar around while saying he still hopes to father another kid—riding around the outer Havana neighborhood of Buena Vista in a vintage convertible, asking old-timers there if they recall their barrio’s long-gone social club. It’s also how we hear Orlando “Cachaíto” López, as he plucks his double bass in an airy abandoned dance hall, recount how he was born into a family of bassists. López’s father was Orestes “Macho” López, and his uncle, from whom he got his nickname, was Israel López, better known as Cachao—two storied brothers in the annals of Cuban music, widely credited with inventing the mambo. It was the López brothers who in the forties composed a lilting danzón for patrons of that social club in Buena Vista, as they did for dancers at many such venues, that included an extended “mambo” section of repeated rhythmic figures, perfect for improvising over by virtuosos like themselves or Cachaíto.

Not that we learn much about that story, or about the great López brothers beyond their names, from Wenders’ film. Buena Vista Social Club isn’t what to watch to learn that most of the music on its namesake record is son, a style of music evolved in Cuba’s rural east before 1920, when key figures like Miguel Matamoros forged a new sound that combined Spanishguitars with Bantu-style percussion; to learn that it was only after son arrived in Havana, a decade later, that horns like those heard on Buena Vista’s tracks were added to a typical son ensemble’s mix; to learn that it was in the thirties and forties, in bands led by legends like Antonio Arcaño (with whom Cachao and Macho López played) and Arsenio Rodríguez (with whom Buena Vista’s peerless pianist, Rubén González, cut his teeth), that the music deepened still further in complexity and drive to shape the emergence not merely of mambo here but also, later on in New York, what came to be known as salsa.

It’s also not a film from which you’ll learn that the big and motley group assembled in Havana by Juan de Marcos González wasn’t a sort of ensemble—with its guajiro cowboy singers rubbing shoulders with city cabaret stars like Portuondo—that would have existed in the fifties. Or that will tell you that the group’s signature song, “Chan Chan,” may sound as old as the others on the record but is in fact a composition by Segundo from the 1980s.

This isn’t a music documentary, in short, that is built to trace the history of its constituent sounds—let alone to offer something like the tableau of Cuban music’s golden eradeftly approached in the classic 1964 Cuban documentary Nosotros, la música. Nor is it a film built principally to document those sounds’ performance—even if it does include plenty of that, during a first hour in which scenes from Havana are interspersed with footage of a concert in Amsterdam (footage that was drained of its color in the editing room, Wenders has said, to emphasize this context’s difference from Cuba), and in a final act that finds us following these figures, whom we now know, to New York to wander its streets with them and then see them perform, bathed in Manhattan’s lights and exuding their own, at Carnegie Hall. What distinguishes Wenders’ film, as much as its being a movie about music, is its success as an impressionistic, character-driven portrait of an enchanting city that is defined—at least through this outsider’s lens—by nostalgia.

Nostalgia in Havana is, of course, in many ways a function of Castro’s 1959 revolution. In expelling the U.S. mobsters who ran the city and turning Cuba socialist, the revolution that at last gave Cuba’s musicians health care also ended the era of fancy ballrooms and vice from which many of them earned money. Given that Cuba’s Communist Party has for fifty years seen fit to spend far more of its treasure on doctors and defense than on fixing up or razing old buildings, in this port that was for centuries the great Caribbean city, the revolution also abetted a nostalgia that reaches back further. Either way, it was a setting that plainly agreed with Wenders, who from the era of his seventies road movies in Germany has always demonstrated a deep sense for how to use landscape and light to tell a story—and who has, in later touchstones like Wings of Desire (1987), his classic fantasy rendering of Cold War Berlin, and Lisbon Story (1994), a film that’s as much about how sun hits laundry in Portugal’s capital as it is about any of its characters, used potent cityscapes to do the same thing. In Havana with Buena Vista’s musicians, Wenders began to feel that “his subjects were coming across less as documentary interview subjects than ‘fictional’ characters—distinct personalities verging on the mythical, or archetypal.” He began to use the city itself, and its settings, to further this process—to turn these talking musicians into living statues: icons of a timeless Havana. When we encounter Rubén González, the elfin piano great, sitting on a park bench surrounded by the immense roots of banyan trees, we don’t actually approach him before completing nearly a full circle around him with the Steadicam rig that Wenders’ director of photography, Jörg Widmer, used to make such smoothly circling shots a signature of the film. He and Wenders used the same means to shoot “archetypes” like Eliades Ochoa—the group’s guajiro cowboy character, shot wandering the train tracks like a mournful drifter—and Barbarito Torres, the mustachioed and devilish master of the Cuban laúd, filmed as he recounts the history of island string instruments in the dusty light of an old guitar factory.

Wenders, of course, isn’t the first or last visitor to learn that Havana seems to suffer, as the travel writer Thomas Swick has observed, from the opposite problem of most destinations: it’s more photogenic than the pictures. It’s hard to look anywhere here without seeing, in the faded pastel palette and curved line of someone’s home or car, a photograph one could take. And that was even truer in the nineties. For that was before the piecemeal refurbishment of the city’s historic buildings, and the dripping influx of foreign cash, now threatening to become a flood, began to help some sectors of the city, anyway, feel more modern than crumbling. When Wenders turned up in 1998, though, none of the grand buildings or historic bars now being fixed up by foreign investors had been touched, and he had carte blanche from ICAIC, the Cuban film institute, to shoot wherever he liked. The result is a bouquet of luminous scenes whose most memorable momentsevince Wenders’ genius—brought to full fruition in the later film, Pina (2011), that may be his masterpiece—for conveying wordless meaning with bodies moving in space. That shot-in-3D tribute to his friend the choreographer Pina Bausch, and to her dance in the world, includes no on-screen talking at all. The same is true of the sequence here that finds Widmer’s Steadicam climbing the ornate stairs of Cuba’s magnificent National Ballet School, like a curious wanderer in the city drawn upward by beautiful piano music, to find gentle Rubén González tinkling the keys in a huge room full of light and joyous ten-year-olds, who circle the pianist in leotards.

Not all of the scenes in this regard, or the film entire, come off. One wonders why Ry Cooder’s son, Joachim, a young percussionist from Los Angeles, is given the same treatment as the Cuban greats: the younger Cooder, who is shot musing about how wonderful Cuban drummers are in what looks like a rusting old prison, has hardly earned his place onstage with the luminaries he gets to perform alongside. What he gives to the project isn’t clear. Some may go so far as to say the same of Ry Cooder himself: no matter the deep service he has done these musicians, and the cause of traditional Cuban music en general, it’s easy to empathize with lovers of that music who may wish, during studio scenes here when Cooder adds his northern steel guitar to an all-Cuban mix that sounds perfect already, that he would just stay in the producer’s booth. But all that is perhaps simply to say that the whole Buena Vista enterprise was attended, from the start, by all that has always been vexing about “world music.” In Cuba as in so many places, one wishes that the players of great old music didn’t require the love and funds of foreigners to get paid. But the ultimate question to ask about a project like this one must perhaps always be how its success accrued to the artists who made it. And in that respect, for these musicians—many of whom have passed away since 1999, but who got to live out their remaining years not as anonymous but as acclaimed, in Cuba and worldwide—the answer is plain.

Wenders, for his part, reflecting on these kinds of questions and on his time in Havana making the movie, once said, “I don’t think that approach or technique defines a film. What counts is the attitude of the people behind the camera toward those in front. I hope it shows, because we loved them.” In this respect, he needn’t worry: it does. But what’s perhaps most vexing and interesting of all to contemplate, about Buena Vista Social Club now—the record and the film—is how it has lived on in Cuba, in ways beyond its use as a catchphrase by those annoying touts in Old Havana. Not long ago, on the other end of the island, in Santiago de Cuba, I found one interesting answer.

The occasion was a historic one: I’d flown to Santiago for the funeral of Fidel Castro—a native son of the province known as Cuba’s “cradle of the son” who launched his revolution in the mountains outside Santiago in the fifties, and whose cremated remains were laid to rest here in December 2016. The night after the Comandante’s final rites was the first one, after a nine-day period of national mourning, on which Cubans were allowed to play music. I was walking up a street near the town’s old central square when I heard what sounded like a large band, nearby, playing a familiar song. The dramatic chords at the song’s start weren’t being played by guitars and tres but by massed horns like in a high school marching band, accompanied by the layered hand percussion of Cuba. But the song was unmistakable. It was “Chan Chan.” I walked a couple of blocks to its source. I found the old building whose wooden windows and doors, in the hot night air, were wide open to the street. Over the door was painted this place’s name: the Miguel Matamoros Music School. The group of twenty-odd youngsters inside this institution named for one of the son’s founding fathers, their teacher told me, played public shows in the square on Sundays. I asked the teacher, a cheerful man wearing the Yoruba beads of his Afro-Cuban faith, if “Chan Chan” was a song these kids performed just for tourists or if santiagueros liked it too. He looked at me like I was nuts. “Everybody loves ‘Chan Chan’!” he said. “Don’t you know? It’s the Buena Vista Social Club.”

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