Cuban Snowball

When guitarist and producer Ry Cooder headed to Havana in 1996 to record the collaborative efforts of African and Cuban musicians, he had no idea he was about to launch a cottage industry. It began with an abrupt change in plans: upon arriving, Cooder learned that the Africans couldn’t make it, so he decided instead to focus on traditional Cuban son. With the aid of Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, who plays the guitarlike tres in the great contemporary son band Sierra Maestra, he assembled a group of mostly forgotten veteran musicians–some still active, like singer-guitarist Eliades Ochoa, and others long retired, like singer Ibrahim Ferrer, who was shining shoes for a living. Three remarkable albums came out of the sessions, including the debut by pianist Ruben Gonzalez, but the one that’s resonated most deeply is Buena Vista Social Club (Nonesuch), which to date has sold an incredible 1.5 million copies worldwide.

Three years later Cooder’s trip is still bearing fruit. Nonesuch and other labels have released a steady stream of superb new and archival recordings by the musicians he recruited, and on November 3, Ferrer and Ruben Gonzalez will make their long-overdue Chicago debut at the Chicago Theatre. There’s even a movie: this Friday, Wim Wenders’s 1998 documentary follow-up to Buena Vista Social Club, also called Buena Vista Social Club, opens at the Music Box.

Every few years, it seems, this country gets caught up in the “exotic” music of some foreign land–as in the African music explosion ushered in by Paul Simon’s Graceland, the Irish music deluge that resulted from Riverdance, or the current fascination with Brazilian tropicalia stoked by David Byrne. Now, thanks to Cooder, it’s Cuba’s turn. What’s different about Buena Vista Social Club, however, is that for the most part the musicians are unknown in their own land, and the style of music they play was rapidly dissolving into distant memory before the album caught fire. Acclaimed contemporary Cuban jazz pianist Ernan Lopez-Nussa, who performed here recently, told me that the stars of the record “have gone through their whole lives without fame. Only other musicians knew who they were. I’ve known Ruben Gonzalez since I was a child, but some of the musicians were completely unknown to me until the album came out.”

Quite a few of them once played in famous bands. Ruben Gonzalez, for instance, backed Arsenio Rodriguez. Flutist Richard Egues was in Orquesta Aragon, and Ferrer sang with Beny More. But with the exception of Compay Segundo, who plays a guitar-tres hybrid of his own design called the armonico, none is a bandleader. More significant, their music is the music of prerevolutionary Cuba, when the island was a playground for wealthy American businessmen. When he came to power in 1959, Fidel Castro did his best to eradicate it, pushing instead the patriotic trova tradition, and as the government took over the recording industry many artists fled to the U.S. Communism made (and makes) it difficult for those who stayed behind to get equipment or record.

But while Cuba’s isolation ended the careers of some musicians, it also preserved the sounds of the island in amber–and after the Soviet Union fell, leaving Cuba in dire financial straits, music became one of the country’s most valuable commodities. In 1993 the state-run studio and record label Egrem began to license its vast stockpile of recordings to foreign labels and allow musicians the opportunity to tour abroad, keeping the money they made along the way. Two years later musicians were granted the right to negotiate their own recording contracts and to organize their own tours. They’d become ambassadors for the tourist trade, now the country’s lifeblood. This is why we’ve seen so many good Cuban groups come through town in recent years and why so many fabulous recordings are turning up in record shops–although none is directly licensed to a U.S. label, thanks to our government’s ass-backward embargo.

As successful as Buena Vista Social Club has been here, it’s not exactly what the average Cuban grooves to every day. Down there timba rules the day–a slick and modern energetic salsa fusion perfected by artists like Los Van Van, Charanga Habanera, Manolin, and Paulito FG, who’ve become bona fide pop stars at home. The Buena Vista musicians are something like New Orleans’s Preservation Hall Jazz Band, veteran musicians playing an unreconstructed version of what they grew up with. But in Cuba the old music is still at the heart of virtually all music made on the island to this day, as well as anything anywhere that you might call salsa. “The music they play is timeless,” says Lopez-Nussa. “It’s ultimately the same music I play today.”

Since the original three albums came out, Nonesuch has issued Lo mejor de la vida by Segundo, and Caliente, an Atlantic affiliate, has released Havana Cafe by lute player Barbarito Torres. And this month saw the release of perhaps the best new records yet to come out of the project: the making of one of them, Ibrahim Ferrer’s eponymously titled debut for Nonesuch, is chronicled in the Wenders film; it’s a lovely, languorous, unaffected mix of son, romantic boleros, and hip-swaying mambos. The other is Ochoa’s Sublime ilusion (Higher Octave World); recorded in LA with his longtime group Cuarteto Patria, it’s as notable for its stripped-down clarity as Ferrer’s is for its majestic orchestral sweep. Ochoa, who’s never without his cowboy hat in the film, plays a countrified version of son, with an unhurried energy to his playing and a raw, front-porch soulfulness to his singing.

In July, Nonesuch digs into the Egrem vaults to release Bossa cubana by Los Zafiros, a wonderfully strange mid-60s group that played a mix of doo-wop, soul, bossa nova, and son rhythms, and whose guitarist Manuel Galban contributes to the new Ferrer album. The label is also releasing a two-CD set called Los heroes, culled from 1979 sessions cut for the African salsa market by Estrellas de Areito, an all-star group that included Gonzalez, singer Pio Leyva, and timbale player Amadito Valdes (all featured in Buena Vista Social Club) as well as Cuban expat jazz players like Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D’Rivera.

If this barrage of traditional Cuban music feels like a last-chance bonanza, that may not be not far from the truth. Ferrer is in his 70s, Ruben Gonzalez is 80, and Segundo is in his 90s, so their belated fame is decidedly bittersweet. The most poignant part of Wenders’s film is when, after a gig at Carnegie Hall, the musicians wander around New York as spellbound as Kansas schoolkids on a field trip. But they’re not taking their 15 minutes sitting down–as the latest rush of recordings and tours suggests, they’re making the most of every opportunity to play the music of their lives.

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Geraint Lewis.