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The Boston Phoenix Imaginary Cubas

Buena Vista and beyond

By Josh Kun

SEPTEMBER 11, 2000:  Early in Wim Wenders's 1999 documentary The Buena Vista Social Club, Ry Cooder is shown cruising the streets of old Havana on a vintage motorcycle. He's wearing sunglasses, his gray hair is blowing in the wind, and his goatee'd son, also wearing sunglasses, is riding in the sidecar. As they glide past poor octogenarian black Cubans standing in front of dilapidated buildings, the pair look triumphantly cool, like regally hip visitors from another world, the vaunted explorers from planet North America who have come to take Cuba in, relish its cultural riches, and, eventually, sell it back to itself. North American father and son look exactly the way they're being marketed and celebrated back in the States: as discoverers, as traveling salesmen of cultural brokerage about to plant another flag in the sound of a Cuban authenticity that they themselves are manufacturing.

The new Artisan Entertainment DVD release of the film -- the latest fix for stateside NPR Cubaphiles who can't kick their Buena Vista habit -- makes the ideological underbelly of Buena Vista all the more difficult to endure. In his audio commentary, Wenders reveals that the scene was staged, that Cooder usually went in a car to the studios every morning but for the shoot chose to ride on an old motorcycle. The staging of the Cooders as tourist heroes -- or in Wenders's words, "treasure hunters" -- echoes what so many have forgotten amid all the concert-hall, high-ticket-price, transatlantic hype: Buena Vista itself was staged. "They never existed as a band," Wenders remarks on the DVD. "They were an invention by Ry."

Which leaves the music of the Buena Vista Social Club -- packaged and sold across the world as the properly aged real thing, as authentic unadulterated Cuba -- in a suspect Monkees-esque position. What the DVD makes clear is that all the Buena Vista byproducts are the result of intensive First/Second World mediation: Wenders's film is a creation of Ry Cooder's creation of Cuban musicians.

Ever since The Buena Vista Social Club album (on Nonesuch) was released, back in 1997, the whole project has been tainted by glossy, congratulatory paternalism, with Cooder always positioned as the humble discoverer of Buena Vista gold. On the DVD, Wenders uses phrases like "When Ry found Rubén [González]," and he repeatedly defends Cooder's involvement with the musicians not on the level of æsthetics, taste, or political solidarity but on the level of its being a gift from Cooder. Says Wenders, "[Without Ry], Ibrahim [Ferrer] would still be shining shoes and Rubén would still not have a piano at his house."

The Buena Vista adventurer-discoverer prototype has spawned its own set of knockoffs. In the publicity for the new Six Degrees compilation, Cuba Without Borders, the Indigo Girls are quoted as billing the album's producer and curator, Greg Landau, as "the Alan Lomax of the '90s." Bill Laswell might have held that title if Lomax had re-edited his master tapes of Leadbelly instead of putting him on display at academic conferences in his prison stripes. Laswell's Imaginary Cuba (Axiom) takes traditional Cuban music and cuts it into disparate, digitally manipulated and collaged limbs. If Cooder's discovery quest has a modernist ring to it, Laswell is lurching for the postmodern crown, printing the phrase "Deconstructing Havana" over an image of the city in the CD's liner notes. But at least Laswell is honest -- the Cuba he invents does not exist and he knows it. The Cuba of the Buena Vista Social Club is imaginary too, but Cooder and Wenders pass it off as real.

And then there's the latest from England's Up, Bustle & Out, Master Sessions 1 (Ninja Tune), a summit meeting between Havana musicians (led by Buena Vista vet Richard Egues) and British acid-jazzers. Up, Bustle & Out's Rupert Mould became so obsessed with the island that he spent months traveling across it -- à la Che, à la Ry -- on a motorcycle. There's a photo of Mould on the bike, cigarette dangling from his mouth, on the title page of The Rebel Radio Diary, the "travelogue" he's written in the spirit of Alexander von Humboldt to chronicle his adventures as a Brit run amok in Cuba.

When I interviewed Mould recently, he complained that the Buena Vista record "time-locked Cuba," and he's right. Too bad his Master Sessions project does the same thing. Mould couples Bristol breakbeat with Cuban rumba, but the two musical languages never share the same track. Cuba is always left to hold down the "traditional" fort and Bristol is always showcased as signifying the "contemporary" (Mould even recorded all the Cuban tracks on vintage '50s equipment to keep it sounding appropriately old). Master Sessions plays the same game: exporting the idea of Cuba as a bolerofied museum object preserved under post-1959 glass. Like all the recent Cubaphilia, what gets pushed as "Cuba" on Master Sessions is saturated with a manufactured descarga pastness -- a make-believe island full of charming storytelling ghosts that is, as Wenders told me last year, "a disappearing beauty" in need of preservation.

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