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Buena Vista Social Club
Ry Cooder is a master guitarist who provided the
music for Wim Wenders' 1984 film, Paris, Texas. In Buena Vista Social Club, Wenders
takes a respectful back seat as he skillfully documents a remarkable byway of social and
musical history in which Cooder played a central role.
Cooder had traveled
to Havana for recording sessions with some musicians from Africa who were supposed to meet
him there. When they didn't show up, he looked for local talent in Havana as an
alternative. What he found were a generation of nearly forgotten musicians who carry the
tradition of Cuban popular music - son. Bringing them into the studio to record,
Cooder resuscitated the performing careers of some enormously talented people whose music
is a joy to hear and whose humanity is a testament to the survival of grace through
success of the album, Buena Vista Social Club (the name comes from the long
defunct spot in Havana where many of these musicians played years ago), led to a concert
in Amsterdam, which is used over the main titles of the film, cross cut with shots of
Havana - a shabby, crumbling combination of faded colonial history and failed socialist
economy. Wenders doesn't get overtly political, but the surviving vitality and winning
humanity of the Cuban musicians against the physical background of their country speaks
The music is sheer,
sensual pleasure. The Cuban beat is distinctive - Latin to its core, but less intense,
more low-keyed than, say, Brazilian samba. It's catchy and sexy - very sexy - and
subtle and swingy all at the same time and it is hard not to start swaying or tapping your
feet. (Getting up to rumba in dark movie theaters is not quite acceptable, is it?).
And the musicianship
is superb. Pianist Ruben Gonzalez would be amazing at any age; at 77 he restores
one's faith. Compay Secundo, who sings and plays guitar, is 90! "As long as blood
runs in my body," Secundo says, "I'm going to love women."
If there is a
predominant theme in this music, it is the bittersweet love lyric - love and passion
found, love lost, time passing by. Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo prove that the inroads of
age on the vocal cords need not prevent singers from effectively and musically conveying
their message and pleasing the ear as well. Dos Gardenias and Veinte Anos
are classics, beautifully rendered here, and worth the price of the CD.
Wenders takes us
into Ferrer's modest home and we observe his religious and superstitious beliefs. Other
musicians are placed for interviews and bits of solo music in various locations which give
a strong flavor of Havana's colonial past. A pattern emerges of mostly working class
backgrounds, strong family ties, early training in music. Not all of the musicians are
old, but the vitality of the elders carries its own message about aging gracefully.
The finale takes the
band to New York for a triumphant concert at Carnegie Hall. "Thank you, family!"
Ibrahim says to a cheering audience.
- Arthur Lazere