Faraway, So Close!

Off the charts but not forgotten: The players of The Buena Vista Social Club

Last year, First Avenue was taken over by the Afro-Cuban All Stars, many of whom had helped create the Ry Cooder-produced Buena Vista Social Club album of 1997. The rhythm-happy sons and mozambiqués rolling off the stage bewitched the hips, but it was the charisma of the vocalists--aged from late-60s to 80-plus--that really intoxicated the audience. These five-decade veterans of the Cuban music scene cha-cha-chaed, mamboed, and sang liquid notes that hung above the crowd like ripe fruit. They joked, cajoled the crowd, supported each other, and were conducted and castigated like children by a man half their age, the group's director Juan de Marcos González.

According to Wim Wenders's new documentary about the project, The Buena Vista Social Club, Gonzalez gathered most of the talent for what has come to be known as another Ry Cooder-saves-a-dying-ethnic-music-by-showing-up-with-his-whiny-guitar recording. The Grammy-winning album came about, recounts guitarist and world-music fan Cooder, after he was asked to mediate a collaboration between Cuban and West African musicians. The latter got stuck in Paris, so González was apparently running around up to the day recording sessions started, convincing more players of Cuba's traditional musics to participate. For his trouble, and that of Cooder and Wenders, the musicians must be grateful: They've gained tons of exposure (and, one can hope, some cash). But it's a little disturbing how much their gifts and stories have been and continue to be shaped and sold by these younger, more media-savvy men.

The primary myth around the Buena Vista album, shored up by Wenders's documentary, is that its musicians were a forgotten breed, exiled from music until Cooder and Nick Gold, from World Circuit Records, arrived to shine a light. Actually, only two musicians--pianist Rubén González and singer Ibrahím Ferrer--seem to have been inactive or retired. Ferrer, whose lush, string-cradled solo album was just released last week, comically milks a tale of finally giving up singing to shine shoes--a fine story, and Wenders can be forgiven perhaps for concentrating on what might have been lost. But that focus displaces the success stories of internationally known tres players Compay Segundo and Eliades Ochoa, who may as well be shoeshiners for all the film explains.

The documentary allows the Buena Vista participants to introduce themselves AA-style: "My name is Ruben Gonzalez. I was born in the city of Santa Clara in Las Villas in the year 1919..." But the duration and depth of their testimonies directly relates to the picture Wenders prefers to portray. Journeymen like bassist Orlando "Cachaíto" Lopéz get grouped together in a slow, shallow middle section. And the accounts of the name players are molded to fit into some weirdly unexamined caricatures: Compay Segundo is the womanizing Playboy; Ochoa, the country Peasant; Ferrer, the mischievous and unschooled Street Kid; González, the holy, if eccentric, Genius. Sure, the musicians contribute to these ahistorical and (it must be said) entertaining portraits, but why is González the only one shown talking at length about his musical training and subsequent career?

Even his story stops after he joins Arsenio Rodríguez's band in the early Forties. The past is strangely gutted here. Wenders repeatedly fills the screen with gorgeous, at once densely colored and sun-scorched street scenes; his main motif is Cuba's cars, all curvaceous pre-Sixties American sedans in bright blues and hot reds. Certainly, due to four decades of U.S. embargo, Cubans have had to expand the lives of early-model automobiles. Yet fetishizing those old Chevys, as Wenders does, only accentuates the impression left by the film that time stopped for Cuba when America turned away, and started again when Cooder--and Wenders's cameras--flew in. It's no coincidence that this documentary ends with the Buena Vista crew touring New York as sleepy dreamers woken suddenly into the "real" present.

Wenders has a clever habit of sliding from casual rehearsal performances to live, full-band renditions onstage in Amsterdam and New York. This gimmick points out how the talents of one or two are enriched by the magic energy of the united players. But it also makes the terrific music seem like something happening out of time, a perpetual groove that one can dip in and out of. And that vision minimizes again the vitality of this hybrid music and the agency of this diverse group. With or without Cooder, the Buena Vista musicians are consciously recombining styles and genres, just as they incorporate players from various Cuban (i.e., Spanish-, African-, and American-influenced) traditions: folky son (Compay), melancholy bolero (Omara Portuondo), eastern Cuban country blues (Ochoa), jazz-influenced dance pop (Rubén González). Far from static or iconic, these performances are alive and part of a developing culture.

Given his films' evocative soundtracks, you'd peg Wenders as a music buff (and, not incidentally, a fan of Cooder, who wrote material for Paris, Texas and The End of Violence). But he does not appear to be the kind of enthusiast who cares much about the material history of the performers or their songs--as all those "timeless" movies about road trips and angels should have made clear. The Buena Vista Social Club is a beautiful-looking, often funny film that reduces its ostensible subjects even as it celebrates them. It documents the tendency of European-American culture to frame non-Anglo art as instinctive, physical, and nonintellectual, more than it reveals much about Cuban musicians. Luckily for those players and their audiences, the music speaks for itself.


The Buena Vista Social Club starts Friday at Lagoon Cinema.

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