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The Boston Phoenix Buena Vista, Baby

The Cuba connection

By Franklin Soults

JANUARY 17, 2000:  If you believed the TV version, the arrival of the new millennium represented nothing less than the triumph of global communications over our tribal past. Yet to judge from the bits I caught of PBS's 24-hour coverage, people everywhere greeted the Big Rollover with music that boomed and grooved with a contradictory combination of Vegas-style showmanship and good ol' parochialism -- the kind of contemporary ethnic songs generally classified as "world music," whether it was a drum-heavy Afropop celebration from West Africa or a new-age Polynesian children's dance from Easter Island. There was also at least one festive interpretation of a homegrown Western Civ cornerstone: a combined giant puppet show, fireworks display, and performance of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" broadcast from Germany. But there is one corner of the world in which the idea of celebrating a common future through local musical traditions must have carried genuine poignance -- the long-lost island of Cuba.

Frozen in Fidel Castro's struggle to keep alive the century's greatest dream and failure, Cuba has become a living museum of 20th-century history. It's a unique fate, and it puts an edge of resistance into the millennial shift. Still, I don't think the impulse to resist has been unfelt by the rest of the world. In fact, I suspect it's fueled the unparalleled success of the Cuban music that's been exported over the past few years, a success spearheaded by the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon. In various albums and the popular documentary (a book will follow in March, with photos by Donata and text by Wim Wenders), outsiders have been allowed to partake in something that Cubans must accept as a daily matter of course: the persistence of a historical moment that elsewhere is just that -- history.

The Buena Vista story is as simple-yet-complex as Pokémon. The "real" BVSC was simply an old neighborhood-run dancehall in pre-revolutionary Havana, an abandoned, all-but-forgotten institution whose name was adopted by a group of abandoned, all-but-forgotten Cuban musicians brought together by American producer and guitarist Ry Cooder in 1996. With Cooder at the helm, they recorded new versions of the classic boleros, guajiras, and sones that the Cuban artists had helped invent.

Cooder realized that these sessions were a cultural gold mine, but he must have been surprised at how much real commercial gold has accrued since. Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit/Nonesuch) won a 1997 Grammy and has sold well over one million copies worldwide, including some 800,000 in the US. After that came a triumphant mini-tour that took these impoverished retirees to Carnegie Hall, with Wim Wenders in tow to shoot the Buena Vista Social Club documentary, which is now a strong Oscar contender. A small array of BVSC offshoot albums and complementary projects has followed. It's all added up to the greatest flood of Cuban music to reach these shores since the spigot was shut off in the wake of the Bay of Pigs. Before that, there was the cha-cha-cha, "Babalú," the young Celia Cruz. After that -- nada. If anything, this sudden revival of the traditional Cuban clavé has given us the exact inverse of many of those PBS New Year's Eve snippets: a local culture devoid of flashy gimmicks, and one that seems to be treasured more by outsiders than insiders.

At one level, the extra-musical pull of the Buena Vista phenomenon is a simple human one. Cuba's situation may be unique among nations, but as these septua-, octa-, and nonagenarians prove with every breath they steal, it's also utterly universal. One by one, we're all eventually trapped by time, even unrelenting workhorses from Pablo Picasso to Patrick O'Brian (RIP). The most we can hope is to preserve and pass on whatever we can from our moment in the sun.

But it also seems that non-Cubans find Buena Vista so alluring because it preserves and passes on what I'd dare to call an aesthetic version of Castro's political project, even though the two camps have hardly been friends (many of the Buena Vista musicians suffered under the Communist government for having served the '40s and '50s tourist industry). If these aging artists value spontaneity, inspiration, and personal technique without a shred of irony or alienation, well, their nation's aging leader is a shrewd but ultimately romantic ideologue who would probably dismiss irony and alienation as symptoms of bourgeois decadence. In both you find the spirit of 20th-century modernism at its apex -- the moment when the folk rise up and take over the city.

The movie made the connection to Cuba's history and politics more explicitly than the album. Although I suspect liberals have read the link between the lines of music, too, it's easy to take one more step and read too much into everything -- as the plight of six-year-old Elián González demonstrates, feelings about Castro's Cuba are wide-ranging and easily stirred. A crucial element of great Cuban music is that it speaks to those feelings without dictating them. Whatever any of us thinks of Fidel's Impossible Dream, we all can agree that the omnipresent sense of triumph and tragedy in the Buena Vista recordings shows that politics, aesthetics, and, yes, "the human condition" are mysteriously and inextricably bound, no matter how mushheads might gush about "the transcendent purity of music."

Given all that, it's no surprise that the Buena Vista double bill coming up on January 30 and February 1 at the Orpheum sold out long in advance, even with its dauntingly foreign-sounding title: "Buena Vista Social Club Presents Orquesta Ibrahim Ferrer and Rubén González y Su Grupo." If nothing else, that tour -- and another upcoming show at the House of Blues in February featuring Buena Vista guitarist Eliades Ochoa -- offers a good excuse to look back on the past year of Cuban releases, when the floodgates that Buena Vista opened really let the clavé flow.

Others are looking back too. World Music and the Cambridge Center for Adult Education are offering a workshop on January 29, just before the Ferrer/González concerts, called "Beyond Buena Vista: The Cuban Music Phenomenon." And last fall, avant-garde mixologist Bill Laswell released the intriguing Imaginary Cuba (Wicklow/BMG), a disc subtitled on the inner case "Deconstructing Havana." The cover photo shows a pregnant woman seated in a spare, decrepit room, with a picture of Che Guevara on the wall like some religious talisman. Inside, the music delivers a similar jolt, laying ambient synth textures and dub beats over echoey field recordings made "in the studios, streets and back rooms of Havana."

In this continuous, dreamlike suite, pre-industrial Third World street jams ebb and flow against cool, hard, modern club sounds. The effect is a rigorous and beguiling one, but it doesn't "deconstruct" the Cuban craze as completely as it pretends. For one thing, plenty of Cuban discs aren't defined by that authentic rootsy historical sensibility that Laswell seeks to pinpoint. Take the commendable contemporary compilation ¡Cuba Sí! Pure Cuban Flavor (Rhino), the accomplished Latin jazz of 78-year-old pianist Frank Emilio on Ancestral Reflections (Blue Note), or the old-timers' party on the Afro-Cuban All Stars' new Distinto, Diferente (World Circuit): all of them are solid and pleasurable albums, sure to add flavor to your next fiesta, but none reaches for more than a generic Latin groove. For that matter, neither does Eliades Ochoa on Sublime Ilusión (Higher Octave World/Virgin). Although his bluesy guajira guitar and vocals were an essential component of the first Buena Vista album, on his own, his voice proves more limited and his playing more placid. From his version of the title song, you'd never suspect what a weird combination of prim delicacy and unbridled passion the number can deliver.

To hear that, you need to search out the same song on the German-manufactured Casa de la Trova (Detour/Erato/Warners International), a collection featuring venerable practitioners of "trova" (troubadour music), a formal ballad style that's about twice as old as the singers. The bolero rhythms, classical guitars, and refined vocals are like Latin chamber music, as old-fashioned and theatrical as a Jimmie Rodgers 78, and as wound up in rectitude and romance as the ancient lovers in Gabriel García Márquez's novel Love in the Time of Cholera.

Castro's government favored the trova style over its various son inheritors, perhaps because it was so much less commercial than those uncurbed dance sounds. Still, the state-sponsored recording company EGREM did loosen up briefly in 1979, inviting a collection of almost 50 dance band musicians, including Buena Vista's superlative pianist, Rubén González, to record together for a week. From the original five albums culled from the session, the two-CD Estrellas de Areito: Los Heroes (World Circuit/Nonesuch) samples two and a half hours in just 14 songs. Most of it is slower and sparer than the Puerto Rican salsa it was meant to top, but at its best -- maybe 10 cuts -- I'd venture it also tops just about every non-jazz jam of its era.

The best new Cuban discs I've heard are the Buena Vista offshoot, Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer (World Circuit/Nonesuch), and the latest compilation from a seminal modern Cuban combo, Los Van Van's La Colección Cubana (Music Club). Reduced to shining shoes for a living before he was rediscovered by the Buena Vista crew, the charismatic, 72-year-old Ferrer has become Buena Vista's lead spokesman for good reason: his exuberant, crushed-velvet voice slips from guajira to danzón with exceptional grace and warmth, and his solo album ups the sexiness and catchiness quotient of the original album by several notches, almost as if Buena Vista were just a warm-up. Los Van Van are both more pop and more subtle -- and as central to their island's groove as the Wailers were to Jamaica's and Sonic Youth are to Manhattan's. A little rougher than their spectacular 1989 Mango comp, Songo, their new colección for a new decade still boasts peak after peak of music that's as populist as it is accomplished. With maracas intertwined in one hand (for a party number like "Calla" -- literally, "Shut Up") and a handkerchief twisted in the other (for the blissful longing of "De 5 a 7"), they carry forth the hope that the son will never set, even after politics and the human condition run their inevitable course.

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