Buena Vista Social Club
Because nearly all music heard in the United States is driven by dreams of fame and fortune, the sounds of the Cuban ensemble known as the Buena Vista Social Club are immediately startling. The melodies, rhythms, and songs of the group pull you in with a seductive charm and impassioned beauty. Nurtured by singers and players and communities cut-off from the schemes of PR and marketing, this 'son de Cuba' is that rare thing--music straight from the heart.
Most of the musicians making this exhilarating music were, until a few years ago, near forgotten. Then in 1996, American guitarist and world roots music aficionado Ry Cooder came to Cuba looking to record a session joining Cuban and West African musicians. When the Africans failed to show, Cooder wound up convening an all Cuban cast to record boleros, guijiras (rural laments), and cha-cha-chas popular in pre-revolutionary Cuba. The resulting album, Buena Vista Social Club (Nonesuch/World Circuit), became a word-of-mouth breakthrough success selling over one million copies worldwide and earning a 1997 Grammy Award. Suddenly a group of elderly musicians, ranging in years from 60 to 90 plus, were again centerstage. And thankfully, their "comeback" is marvelously preserved in Cooder (producer) and German director Wim Wenders stirring documentary film Buena Vista Social Club.
Capturing rehearsal sessions in Havana and concerts in Amsterdam and New York's Carnegie Hall, the movie delivers thrilling performances of the melancholy and romantic music that sparked a phenomenal new audience for Cuban music. Among the performers are "stars" such as 72 year old Nat (King) Cole of Cuba, Ibrahim Ferrer, the 92 year old giant of Cuban son, guitarist/singer Compay Segundo, legendary 80 year old pianist Ruben Gonzalez, and the dynamic 69 year old bolero and feeling singer Omara Portuondo.
But Buena Vista Social Club is much more than a concert movie. Mixing performance footage with musician interviews and brief interludes of Havana street life, director Wenders suggests the vital connection between the music and the Cuban people. Touring the musician's old neighborhoods and panning the decaying grandeur along urban boulevards, Buena Vista evokes the long gone days of old Havana, the deprivations wrought by the US embargo, and the embattled promise of socialism. Yet as the music that comes from these streets conveys sadness and hardship, it does not yield its vibrancy, generosity and pride.
Although not an explicitly political film, two telling comments by Buena Vista lead singer Ibrahim Ferrer echo this resilient spirit. Like most of the musicians in the documentary, Ferrer has had the opportunity to leave Cuba and decided to stay. He lives in a small run down Havana apartment and before he was called from the streets to join the Buena Vista band was shining shoes. Acknowledging in an interview that life in Cuba is not easy, Ferrer still maintains that times before Castro "were harder." And at another point he adds: "If we followed the way of possessions, we would have been gone a long time ago."
Swept along by the easy warmth and irresistible good will of the musicians and music, Ferrer's statements may pass unnoticed. But in his humble clarity, the singer points to the striking appeal of the music. There is plenty of breathtaking musicianship on display in Buena Vista, but to see music made innocent of attitude, pose, and market is mesmerizing. Most of the time, we don't do it like that in the USA.
Another thing we don't hear much anymore, except in the small camps of the already converted, is the topical and left-bent folk song. But stirring up a buzz in New York City is a 30 year old Richmond, Virginia songwriter-performer named Stephan Smith who seems a throwback to old school folksinging.
Performing at demonstrations, clubs, schools, and churches, Smith has built a steadily growing following reporting the news of the day with a definite anti-capitalist slant and a righteous challenge to build the world anew. And with the June release of his debut album, Now's The Time (Rounder Records), he's getting a shot at a national audience.
Culled from a four day recording session that documented 60 songs, Now's The Time introduces 14 Smith selected numbers reflecting the wide scope of his subjects and styles. With just his voice, guitar, banjo, and harmonica, Smith balances chronicles of the brutalization of Abner Louima and the tragic schoolyard shootings in West Paducah, Kentucky against hopeful and autobiographical tunes charged with social idealism and a call to activism.
Picking up the tools of his trade through migrant work in Europe and farm labor in the mountains of West Virginia, Smith learned the essentials of traditional song long before he heard Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Dylan and Ochs. And with his haunted ballad singing, clawhammer banjo playing, and fluid fingerpicking, he presents substantial evidence of good schooling. But in the end, the power and urgency of Now's The Time resides in the message. From "It Rose From The Dead," a tune that didn't make the album cut, Smith's ever constant desire: "If anyone should ask you 'How did this movement start?'/ Tell'em go figure. It started in my heart/ And it rose, it rose, it rose from the dead/ ...and my faith shall bear my spirit on."