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Cuban Hit Parade

Buena Vista Social Club

recording produced by Ry Cooder
Nonesuch 79478-2, $10.99, cassette

Afro-Cuban All Stars: A Toda Cuba le Gusta

recording produced by Nick Gold, by Juan de Marcos González
Nonesuch 79476-2, $10.99, cassette

Introducing…Rubén González

recording produced by Nick Gold
Nonesuch 79477-2, $10.99, cassette

For two weeks in March of 1996, at a shabby recording studio in downtown Havana, a group of mostly elderly Cuban musicians gathered for a series of recording sessions under the aegis of Ry Cooder, the US guitarist, composer, and producer. In the course of those few sessions, some produced directly by Cooder, others produced and arranged by the Cuban musician Juan de Marcos González, the artists recorded enough material for three compact discs: Introducing…Rubén González, Afro-Cuban All Stars, and the album by which the sessions and all three discs have collectively become known, Buena Vista Social Club.

As of this month, Buena Vista Social Club, having gone platinum (one million copies sold worldwide), is officially the best-selling Afro-Cuban album of all time. It is a hit in Plymouth, England, as well as in Paris and Buenos Aires. A concert by a selection of the recordings’ soloists played to delirious crowds at Carnegie Hall earlier this year, and los del Buena Vista—including the seventy-nine-year-old pianist Rubén González and the singers Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer, now ninety-one and seventy-one, respectively—are regular stars on the international tour circuit.

Buena Vista Social Club may come nearest to being the perfect popular music record since Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Like the Beatles’ album, it achieves the seemingly impossible goal of making odd and unknown music, sung in a foreign language (foreign, at least, to non-Latin audiences), instantly familiar, logical, and memorable, as the English-language songs on Sergeant Pepper seemed thirty years ago to non-English-speaking youths the world over.

Like Sergeant Pepper‘s, Buena Vista‘s impact starts from the cover, which is enchanting, surprising without being startling, and yet unique. The back and cover photographs show the weirdly lonely streets of downtown Havana; a few people stroll past the parked cars from another era now stranded in the Cuban present. On the front cover, a wiry, past-middle-age, very black man approaches the camera, paying no attention to it at all. He has the costume and the attitude of the chévere (of whom the character Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess is probably the closest US equivalent). Down, but not out, he strolls in a way that calls respectful attention to his white shoes (no matter that they are canvas sneakers and not patent leather), his white snap-brim cap, his slim hips, the cigarette in perfect balance between his lips, the jivey snap in his stride. The photograph, beautiful in itself, allows us to decipher another, most important, reason for the success of Buena Vista Social Club. When we see it, we feel heart-stopping nostalgia for something we did not realize we had been missing. That something is Cuba.

It seems to be part of Cuba’s destiny to exist in the imagination of the world, to be, always, a dream and a desire. The Revolution substituted its own dreams for the dreams of flesh and glitter that drew flocks of panting tourists to the island in the 1940s and 1950s. As it happened (and not entirely coincidentally), that heyday of gambling and prostitution, of racial segregation (beaches were designated “for whites only”) and cruel frivolity, was also the golden age of the national music, the percussion-driven rumba and the more lyrical son.

That is not to say that the tradition of Afro-Cuban music has not lived on and flourished on the island, but no greater gathering of musical talent and skill has existed in Latin America than the men and women who performed in the decadent (and fun!) nightclubs and on the Havana radio stations in the years immediately prior to Fidel Castro’s revolution. Celia Cruz was the most resplendent star in a constellation that included Beny Moré, Cachao, Pérez Prado, the Trio Matamoros, the septet of Ignacio Piñeiro, the Orquesta Aragón, Guillermo Portabales, and, of course, the Sonora Matancera (the sonorous son band from Matanzas) with its own shining group of singers. The artists who brought Afro-Cuban music to its glorious peak worked constantly, thanks to the demand generated by Havana’s nightclub culture.

Interested listeners can track the artistic development of Cuban popular music in a recent two-disc French compilation (Cuba 1923-1995, Frémaux & Associés).1 On the first disc, in recordings made in the 1920s and 1930s, we hear musicians who were already very well known in Cuba—Ignacio Piñeiro, Arsenio Rodríguez—play songs that would later become world-famous. The music is delightful, but it is, at this early stage, just this side of folk. The compilation’s second disc, featuring many of the same musicians, cooks from beginning to end. In the ten or twenty years that separate the first disc from the second, Cuban popular musicians’ technique, and their view of the world and of their own music, evolved from folk to cosmopolitan. They played the songs and absorbed the lessons of the classically trained composer Ernesto Lecuona, who had listened so carefully to them. They traveled to New York and figured out how to reach across the language barrier. They listened to jazz and took in its configurations of instruments and arrangements.2 Lastly, in the melting fleshpots of Havana, facing the crowds of ecstatic, glittery-eyed dancers, they had the joy of being great entertainers. They learned to dream of their audience much as we have learned to dream since then—dizzily, longingly—of them.

In that sense, listening to Buena Vista Social Club and Introducing… Rubén González is an act of almost ghostly reunion, even for people who had never cared to purchase a single volume of Afro-Cuban music before. Here is Ibrahim Ferrer—who had not participated in a recording session in many years, and who was brought into the recording studio from the Havana street where he was passing the time—pouring so much sexual and romantic emotion into the lyrics of the classic “Dos Gardenias” that hearing it made a listener think of the experience of falling in love on the deck of a luxury liner. There is hardly a pop singer alive today who knows how to evoke that kind of response without turning the room into one great vat of schmaltz, and most of those who did once know have forgotten. But in Cuba the great singers, like the great cars, have stuck around, with no awareness that they are supposed to be obsolescent.

On the album that carries his name, the pianist Rubén González, born in 1919, runs through “Siboney” as if the song had been composed last year. Older listeners might feel rejuvenated; younger listeners might feel worldly beyond their years, and hopeful and torn with longing. Compay Segundo, now entering his tenth decade, weaves a vocal bass line through “Chan Chan,” a hit he wrote only recently. Here as elsewhere throughout the recordings the gathered musicians manage the difficult trick of being simultaneously lewd, charming, and lyrical with absolutely no effort. And running through every one of the songs, sometimes fervent, sometimes hypnotic, is the beat: complicated, rich, layered, and, to use the Cuban term for it, good-tasting.

A photograph in the liner notes for Introducing…Rubén González shows the pianist, trim and white-haired and natty, at the entrance to his tiny improvised kitchen. From the look of it, he lives in one of the many turn-of-the-century mansions in Havana that have been subdivided numerous times to make room for yet another tenant. The liner notes also inform us that ever since the artist’s own piano collapsed under the accumulated impact of time and woodworm, he has lived on the lookout for an instrument, sneaking in practice sessions in bars and hotel lobbies. Like the other musicians in these recordings, he was not a solo recording artist or a star in the days before the Revolution: like his fellows, he was simply the best among the pros. Like Ibrahim Ferrer and Compay Segundo, after the Revolution he gradually faded from view. So did the interpretative style the three men represented.

For one thing, the Revolution gave birth to its own form of music, not Afro-Cuban; it was called the nueva trova, and it was a strongly lyrical blend of folk and something resembling what in other parts of the world was known as “protest song,” but which, in Cuba, for obvious reasons, lacked the confrontational element. For its part, Afro-Cuban music also developed and changed, incorporating contemporary dissonances, loosening its ties to the folk chants and rhymes that are the backbone of rumba and son‘s lyrics, and even assimilating certain rap mannerisms. There was also the diaspora that followed upon the triumph of Fidel Castro’s Ejército Rebelde—the exodus of antirevolutionaries that split the musical community in two and demoralized it. In the United States, exiles like the singer Celia Cruz and the bass player Cachao (Israel López), eventually found a new community among Puerto Rican and Dominican musicians and reestablished their reputations. In Cuba, the Revolution enshrined a couple of groups playing in the son tradition—Enrique Jorrín and his orchestra and the Orquesta Aragón—and sent them abroad on endless good-will tours with their cha cha chá groups. But the majority of those who stayed behind—whether out of revolutionary conviction or the fear of the physical risk involved in trying to leave the island—gradually lost their audiences.

Besides, the powerful fantasies of sex, romance, recklessness, and glamour that energized Cuban popular music in the 1940s and 1950s were neither allowed nor plausible any longer. The regime more or less embalmed one of the grandest of the prerevolutionary nightclubs, the Tropicana, preserving everything from the dance routines to the stage lighting in a slightly moth-eaten atmosphere, but gradually most of the other clubs failed. Throughout these last forty years the Tropicana has been the place where visiting luminaries are always ferried for a glimpse of fun-loving Havana, but this kind of official effort could not guarantee the survival of a musical culture that might well have languished under any circumstances, just as the great swing bands did in the United States.

Afro-Cuban All Stars, the least well known of the three discs that emerged from the Buena Vista sessions, is particularly thrilling precisely because it shows that the classic Afro-Cuban popular forms—rumba, guaguancó, cha cha chá, guaracha—can be brought back to life with the motor intact but with all-new combustion. Ry Cooder produced Buena Vista Social Club, the first of the three albums referred to here, very much with an outsider’s ear for what will carry beyond a musical frontier. A great deal of its strength lies in its accessibility. The choice of songs on Afro-Cuban All Stars, and the arrangements, are those of the Cuban producer Juan de Marcos González, who is well known in Cuba as a member of the group Sierra Maestra, and who knows the music from the inside out. None of the selections on this disc are well known beyond Cuba, but each one is remarkable. The display of rhythmic control and vocal exuberance by Pío Leyva on “Pío the Liar” is alone worth the price.

And the musicians do their own small bit to reestablish a link with their fellows in exile. On “Habana del Este” someone whispers the name of the legendary bassist Cachao, while his nephew Orlando López, Cachaíto, plays a typical Cachao embellishment. On “Alto Songo,” the singer Raúl Planas boasts of his artistic prowess, adding for emphasis, “and Celia Cruz, who is absent, will confirm what I say.” This is the first time I am aware of that the name of the greatest singer Cuba has ever produced has been mentioned so loudly since her departure from the island in 1961. (However, the conciliatory spirit does not always prevail on either side of the Cuban divide: anti-Castro militants protested when Compay Segundo was finally granted a visa allowing him to perform in Miami a few months ago.)

In September of this year several performers from the Buena Vista sessions, led by Juan de Marcos González, appeared for the first time before an audience in Mexico City. The joyful response to their performance was not unlike that at similar Buena Vista concerts in other parts of the world. Traffic backed up for blocks around the theater, and on that rainy night scalpers were able to charge 200 percent markups on tickets. Afterward, audience members talked with surprise about the emotional fervor they had felt and expressed throughout the evening’s performance. There had been cheering, and weeping, when the pianist Rubén González—unexpectedly small and frail—was led to the piano, and then roars of delight when he hit the keys. Right then, the rest of the musicians slid into a groove, and stayed there. There was dancing in the aisles in response to the buttery moves of the performers on the stage, and much singing along. Ibrahim Ferrer sang, and his voice got warmer and richer as the evening progressed. He also strolled around a bit in his jive way (it is none other than Ferrer who appears on the cover of Buena Vista Social Club) so that those of us in the audience could admire his jacket, which was nicely cut and the purest shade of scarlet.

It seemed to me that he was right to think that the jacket should mean as much to his audience as it clearly did to him. The flair required to wear it, the peacock joy and self-assurance, the commitment to life as an invented act, were all part of a recovered music, and of a long-lost dream of Cuba, and in the audience we rushed into the dream as if we were coming home. In the golden years of Afro-Cuban music, its influence on US music was as great as the influence of jazz on it. Who knows what will happen now that the discs are out and the music is back?

  1. 1

    This compilation, along with almost every recording of Spanish-language music currently available on CD, can be found through the Descarga catalog, 328 Flatbush Avenue, Suite 180, Brooklyn, N.Y. 11238.

  2. 2

    The exchange worked both ways. In his useful compilation of writings about Afro-Latino music, Vernon Boggs reminds us that Cuban popular music in the 1950s “not only had a powerful effect on dance patterns in the USA, but also on Jazz and rhythm and blues. The popularity of this music so infected American popular music that many non-Latinos began forming bands expressly devoted to playing it. Some of them were headed by Herbie Mann, George Shearing, and Cal Tjader.” (Vernon F. Boggs, Salsiology: Afro-Cuban Music and the Evolution of Salsa in New York City, Excelsior Music Publishing Co., 1992).

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