Buena Vista Social Club

The Cinema of Wim Wenders: Image, Narrative, and the Postmodern Condition

(1997), Roger F. Cook (Editor)

Ry Cooder is a master guitarist who provided the music for Wim Wenders’ 1984 film, Paris, Texas. In Buena Vista Social Club, Wenders takes a respectful back seat as he skillfully documents a remarkable byway of social and musical history in which Cooder played a central role.

Cooder had traveled to Havana for recording sessions with some musicians from Africa who were supposed to meet him there. When they didn’t show up, he looked for local talent in Havana as an alternative. What he found were a generation of nearly forgotten musicians who carry the tradition of Cuban popular music – son. Bringing them into the studio to record, Cooder resuscitated the performing careers of some enormously talented people whose music is a joy to hear and whose humanity is a testament to the survival of grace through hardship.

The unexpected success of the album, Buena Vista Social Club (the name comes from the long defunct spot in Havana where many of these musicians played years ago), led to a concert in Amsterdam, which is used over the main titles of the film, cross cut with shots of Havana – a shabby, crumbling combination of faded colonial history and failed socialist economy. Wenders doesn’t get overtly political, but the surviving vitality and winning humanity of the Cuban musicians against the physical background of their country speaks for itself.

The music is sheer, sensual pleasure. The Cuban beat is distinctive – Latin to its core, but less intense, more low-keyed than, say, Brazilian samba. It’s catchy and sexy – very sexy – and subtle and swingy all at the same time and it is hard not to start swaying or tapping your feet. (Getting up to rumba in dark movie theaters is not quite acceptable, is it?).

And the musicianship is superb. Pianist Ruben Gonzalez would be amazing at any age; at 77 he restores one’s faith. Compay Secundo, who sings and plays guitar, is 90! "As long as blood runs in my body," Secundo says, "I’m going to love women."

If there is a predominant theme in this music, it is the bittersweet love lyric – love and passion found, love lost, time passing by. Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo prove that the inroads of age on the vocal cords need not prevent singers from effectively and musically conveying their message and pleasing the ear as well. Dos Gardenias and Veinte Anos are classics, beautifully rendered here, and worth the price of the CD.

Wenders takes us into Ferrer’s modest home and we observe his religious and superstitious beliefs. Other musicians are placed for interviews and bits of solo music in various locations which give a strong flavor of Havana’s colonial past. A pattern emerges of mostly working class backgrounds, strong family ties, early training in music. Not all of the musicians are old, but the vitality of the elders carries its own message about aging gracefully.

The finale takes the band to New York for a triumphant concert at Carnegie Hall. "Thank you, family!" Ibrahim says to a cheering audience.

Thank you, amigos!

Arthur Lazere

San Francisco, CA
Mr. Lazere founded culturevulture.net in 1998 and worked tirelessly to promote its potential as a means for communicating a distinctly personal yet wide-ranging selection of arts reviews. Under his leadership, the site grew in esteem as well as in “circulation", and is well-regarded nationally and internationally as a source for up-to-date, well-written criticism. Arthur passed away on September 30, 2006.