Wim Wenders’ 1999 film serves as more than a simple companion to the album.
We stood on the parapets of the Palacio de Valle, the Spanish-Moorish palace in Cienfuegos now turned restaurant and bar, waiting for the sun to set. A group of Cuban musicians sat to one side, there to entertain the tourists as they sucked down mojitos and Cuba Libres. As the sun began to descend, the guitarist picked out the opening notes of “Chan Chan.” In Cuba, circa 2017, the song is still everywhere—from tourist bars to buskers singing on Havana’s famed Malécon, competing with the awful reggaeton that has seemingly overrun the island. Ask a street musician to play you something by Silvio Rodríguez and they will either stare blankly or make something up. However, everyone knows “Chan Chan.”
It will be 20 years ago this September when the wildly successful Buena Vista Social Club album appeared in the United States, a collection of songs from mostly forgotten Cuban musicians that harkens back to the 1940s and ‘50s when Cuba was a popular destination for the American elite. Produced by Ry Cooder and Nick Gold, the album could be heard in coffee shops, fancy soirees and public radio, storming its way to a Grammy and selling more than eight million copies. It also launched successful international tours for many of the musicians involved. Even my students, who weren’t born until 2001, know some of the music from constant play by their parents when they were babies. The album’s songs, such as “Chan Chan” are evocative in their “otherness,” nestled into that uncomfortable category of “world music” that many open-minded listeners buy but still fail to see the neo-colonial issues that come with such a title.
Sometimes the line between celebration and exploitation is thin. The most enduring work of Cooder, a well-regarded guitarist, comes on Talking Timbuktu (1994) where he pairs up with Malian blues legend Ali Farka Touré and here, on the Buena Vista Social Club. The album’s roots begin when British “world music” producer Gold suggested that Cooder and two guitarists from Mali go to Cuba to work with musicians there. The Malians got stuck in Paris because of visa issues and Cooder then teamed up with Cuban musician Juan de Marcos González to track down musicians who specialized in the son Cubano, a type of music that began in eastern Cuba, an amalgamation of Spanish vocal and guitar style with African rhythm and call-and-response structures. Most of the musicians Cooder turned up, some in their 70s and 80s, were living in obscurity. Thanks to the album, many of them had the opportunity to live out their final years reveling in the success that had eluded them since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.
Wim Wenders’ 1999 film serves as more than a simple companion to the album. Filmed during a trip when Cooder returned to Cuba to record a follow-up album with one of the vocalists, Wenders’ movie is more an impressionistic snapshot of Havana than a piercing treatise on the various musicians. Wenders appears to have just let his cameras roll, capturing Cooder and the musicians in and out of the recording studio, in their apartments and walking the streets of Havana. According to the filmmaker, his goal was to “try to do justice to these amazing people and let the music speak for itself.” There are no ethnomusicologists trying to explain the songs and their historic value to death. Instead, the film breathes with the same authentic thrum of life that inspired listeners.
Interspersing footage from an Amsterdam concert with the crumbling streets of Havana, Wenders allows us to slowly meet and learn about the charismatic musicians who found a second musical life via the Buena Vista Social Club. Instantly recognizable from the album’s cover is Ibrahim Ferrer, the honey-voiced singer who Cooder called the “Cuban Nat King Cole.” Ferrer explains that he was orphaned as a young child in Santiago de Cuba and had all but retired from music when Cooder found him. We also meet the nonagenarian Compay Segundo, who played the tres, and who still smokes cigars and talks about siring another child. And then there is the frail Rubén González, who struggles to walk but still plays the piano with elegant fury of Jerry Lee Lewis.
If there is any sort of narrative arc to Buena Vista Social Club, it’s the touching resurrection and success these musicians get to experience when the record becomes an international sensation. The film ends with a joyous concert at Carnegie Hall, the achievement of a lifelong dreamer for many of the musicians to play its hallowed stage. At one point, Ferrer wanders around New York, pointing out Radio City Music Hall and staring at the skyscrapers, marveling at their beauty and repeating how happy he is. Ferrer and many of the other musicians who Wenders filmed in Buena Vista Social Club may have since passed on, but their music is alive and well again, not only on the stereos of American intellectuals, but on the streets and in the bars of Cuba. There is no more fitting a tribute than that.