Dear Peter Margasak:
I decided to wait until seeing the movie Buena Vista Social Club before responding to your article in the June 25 Reader because I wanted to see if the movie actually suggested that the reason the musicians were “forgotten” was because Fidel Castro tried to eradicate them in preference to the nueva trova. The movie does not provide any basis for this comment, nor does history.
Musical tastes and the music industry in Cuba, if one can call it that, changed over the past 40 years, as they have in the United States. That Cuban youth of the 1970s (now in their 40s) preferred the more exciting tempos of Los Van Van (one of Cuba’s best salsa bands, which was founded 25 years ago) or Adalberto Alvarez, Reve, Manolin, etc, cannot be seen as some communist plot. It is the same reason why youth today no longer dance to Benny Goodman or the Motown stars.
Yet despite the changing popular tastes, the traditional son and mambo groups did not disappear. I have a stack of records purchased in Cuba in the early 1980s that feature Orquesta Aragon, Arsenio Rodriguez, Jorrin (the last band with which Ruben Gonzalez played until he retired), Beny More, and others. There was no attempt to eradicate this music by Fidel Castro or anyone else. I heard Orquesta Aragon and other similar groups live on many occasions during visits to Cuba in the 1980s. And no one could begin to suggest that Omara Portuondo has been forgotten. She performs regularly at the National Theater in Cuba and is featured on television and radio.
That Ruben Gonzalez, Ibrahim Ferrer, and others slipped from the public scene and memory is unfortunate, but the reason why had little to do with Fidel Castro. It may have to do with their personal histories: what happened to the bands they played with and their leaders. Maybe if it were not for the U.S. embargo, these musicians would have recorded in the U.S. or traveled here with their groups previously. Maybe not. It is only in the last few years that United States audiences (and markets) have begun to rediscover Cuban music, at a time when the bands these musicians played with no longer exist. Perhaps if Cuba never had a revolution they would have received more attention in Cuba, but we cannot say for sure that they would have survived the change in popular tastes no matter what.
As for the nueva trova, undoubtedly it was well liked by the Cuban leadership for the social content of its lyrics, but it was not a communist party invention. Nueva trova was Cuba’s version of the folk singers of the 1960s and 70s, which was part of an international movement and genre that traditional Cuban son was not. This movement went well beyond Joan Baez and Pete Seeger. Mercedes Sosa of Argentina is still popular throughout Latin America, and Victor Jara’s music of Chile is still legendary among the followers of this music. So when Pablo Milanes and Silvio Rodriguez (the most famous of Cuba’s trova movement) finally were invited to play in Argentina and Chile in more recent years, the tens of thousands of people who packed the theaters and stadiums all knew the lyrics before they heard them live.
Whatever recording industry existed in Cuba prior to 1959, which could not have been very big (Cuba had no publishing houses whatsoever prior to 1959), it was the United States recording industry that dominated. When Cuba began to produce records in the 1970s, it primarily put out records of new groups like Irakere and Los Van Van in addition to the nueva trova, but it also produced a lot of Beny More from archival tapes, Arsenio Rodriguez, Bola de Nieve, Enrique Jorrin, Chapotin, and other stars of the 50s and 60s. For many years, Afro-Cuban music from groups such as Los Munequitos de Matanzas and Los Papines has also been featured on the Cuban labels Areito and Egrem. Cuban musicians suffered the same fate as their United States counterparts when it came to royalties on their compositions. Just ask Richard Egues, the heirs of Matamoros, and scores of others who were duped into signing contracts turning over the compositions to U.S. publishing companies for $1 in the 1950s.
All this is not to say that I don’t think that Ry Cooder did a great service in giving these wonderful musicians an opportunity to receive the international acclamation they deserve, an acclaim they never received even when they were actively playing and recording. I only wish that the film really told more of their story and less of that of Ry Cooder’s “discovery” and obsession with 1950s cars (which, by the way, are not the only cars that are on the streets of Havana today). We never learn what their careers were really like. It is quite likely that archival footage of the groups of Arsenio Rodriguez or Enrique Jorrin exists as well as recordings that include Ruben Gonzalez as the pianist or footage of Beny More that includes Ibrahim Ferrer. The real story of the Buena Vista Social Club remains to be told.