Buena Vista Social Club


Because nearly all music heard in the United States

is driven by dreams of fame and fortune, the sounds of the Cuban ensemble

known as the Buena Vista Social Club are immediately startling. The melodies,

rhythms, and songs of the group pull you in with a seductive charm and

impassioned beauty. Nurtured by singers and players and communities cut-off

from the schemes of PR and marketing, this ‘son de Cuba’ is that rare

thing–music straight from the heart.

Most of the musicians making this exhilarating music

were, until a few years ago, near forgotten. Then in 1996, American guitarist

and world roots music aficionado Ry Cooder came to Cuba looking to record a

session joining Cuban and West African musicians. When the Africans failed to

show, Cooder wound up convening an all Cuban cast to record boleros, guijiras

(rural laments), and cha-cha-chas popular in pre-revolutionary Cuba. The

resulting album, Buena Vista Social Club (Nonesuch/World Circuit), became a

word-of-mouth breakthrough success selling over one million copies worldwide

and earning a 1997 Grammy Award. Suddenly a group of elderly musicians,

ranging in years from 60 to 90 plus, were again centerstage. And thankfully,

their "comeback" is marvelously preserved in Cooder (producer) and

German director Wim Wenders stirring documentary film Buena Vista Social Club.

Capturing rehearsal sessions in Havana and concerts

in Amsterdam and New York’s Carnegie Hall, the movie delivers thrilling

performances of the melancholy and romantic music that sparked a phenomenal

new audience for Cuban music. Among the performers are "stars" such

as 72 year old Nat (King) Cole of Cuba, Ibrahim Ferrer, the 92 year old giant

of Cuban son, guitarist/singer Compay Segundo, legendary 80 year old pianist

Ruben Gonzalez, and the dynamic 69 year old bolero and feeling singer Omara

Portuondo.

But Buena Vista Social Club is much more than a

concert movie. Mixing performance footage with musician interviews and brief

interludes of Havana street life, director Wenders suggests the vital

connection between the music and the Cuban people. Touring the musician’s old

neighborhoods and panning the decaying grandeur along urban boulevards, Buena

Vista evokes the long gone days of old Havana, the deprivations wrought by the

US embargo, and the embattled promise of socialism. Yet as the music that

comes from these streets conveys sadness and hardship, it does not yield its

vibrancy, generosity and pride.

Although not an explicitly political film, two

telling comments by Buena Vista lead singer Ibrahim Ferrer echo this resilient

spirit. Like most of the musicians in the documentary, Ferrer has had the

opportunity to leave Cuba and decided to stay. He lives in a small run down

Havana apartment and before he was called from the streets to join the Buena

Vista band was shining shoes. Acknowledging in an interview that life in Cuba

is not easy, Ferrer still maintains that times before Castro "were

harder." And at another point he adds: "If we followed the way of

possessions, we would have been gone a long time ago."

Swept along by the easy warmth and irresistible good

will of the musicians and music, Ferrer’s statements may pass unnoticed. But

in his humble clarity, the singer points to the striking appeal of the music.

There is plenty of breathtaking musicianship on display in Buena Vista, but to

see music made innocent of attitude, pose, and market is mesmerizing. Most of

the time, we don’t do it like that in the USA.

Another thing we don’t hear much anymore, except in

the small camps of the already converted, is the topical and left-bent folk

song. But stirring up a buzz in New York City is a 30 year old Richmond,

Virginia songwriter-performer named Stephan Smith who seems a throwback to old

school folksinging.

Performing at demonstrations, clubs, schools, and

churches, Smith has built a steadily growing following reporting the news of

the day with a definite anti-capitalist slant and a righteous challenge to

build the world anew. And with the June release of his debut album, Now’s The

Time (Rounder Records), he’s getting a shot at a national audience.

Culled from a four day recording session that

documented 60 songs, Now’s The Time introduces 14 Smith selected numbers

reflecting the wide scope of his subjects and styles. With just his voice,

guitar, banjo, and harmonica, Smith balances chronicles of the brutalization

of Abner Louima and the tragic schoolyard shootings in West Paducah, Kentucky

against hopeful and autobiographical tunes charged with social idealism and a

call to activism.

Picking up the tools of his trade through migrant

work in Europe and farm labor in the mountains of West Virginia, Smith learned

the essentials of traditional song long before he heard Woody Guthrie, Pete

Seeger, Dylan and Ochs. And with his haunted ballad singing, clawhammer banjo

playing, and fluid fingerpicking, he presents substantial evidence of good

schooling. But in the end, the power and urgency of Now’s The Time resides in

the message. From "It Rose From The Dead," a tune that didn’t make

the album cut, Smith’s ever constant desire: "If anyone should ask you

‘How did this movement start?’/ Tell’em go figure. It started in my heart/ And

it rose, it rose, it rose from the dead/ …and my faith shall bear my spirit

on."

 

 

 

 

 

 

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