09 January 2011

Old-Time Cuban Music on Film

A friend of mine, a Cuban film director, wrote to me about visiting the Salzburg Festival. After enjoying operas by Berlioz and Mozart, he said, the big surprise was the Festival’s closing event, a concert by the Cuban old-timers La Vieja Trova Santiaguera, chosen by the Festival’s special guest of the year, the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger. ‘It was tremendous. Austrians in elegant dresses and tuxedos cutting a caper and going crazy with the rhythm of one of the most traditional of our musical styles. Everyone danced and enjoyed themselves till the early hours. I can only tell you,’ my friend added, ‘that wherever I go I find this incredible popularity of Cuban music.’ The international popularity of Cuban music is not, by any means, a new phenomenon. One need only think of the Latin jazz of the 1940s, when the Cuban drummer Chano Pozo was Dizzy Gillespie’s drummer and George Russell wrote ‘Cubana Be Cubana Bop’ for Gillespie and Charlie Parker; or the rise to fame in the 1970s throughout Latin America of the singers of the Nueva Trova like Silvio Rodrìguez and Pablo Milanès; then of Afro-Cuban jazz groups such as Los Irakere in the 1980s, followed by the salsa boom of the 1990s. But, in the mid to late 1990s a new twist emerged.


Ever since the American guitarist and composer Ry Cooder recorded an album in Havana in 1996 with a group of largely forgotten ancianos (old folk) and issued it under the title of the 'Buena Vista Social Club,' we have been treated not only to the vibrancy of Afro-Cuban jazz and salsa, but now, also, to a revival of the pre-revolutionary son of the golden period of the 1930s and 1940s. Yet, this is a revival like no other. These are not young musicians taking up and modernizing an old tradition, but the survivors of the original moment, now in their seventies, eighties, or even nineties, who are touring abroad for months at a time, playing venues such as Amsterdam, London, New York’s Carnegie Hall, and even Miami. The extraordinary sight of these old men, black or moreno, supercharging diverse audiences, has been captured in two films, the Dutch production Lagrimas Negras, directed by Sonia Herman Dolz in 1998, and a year later Buena Vista Social Club from Wim Wenders, made at the invitation of Cooder himself, the composer for Wenders’s films Paris, Texas and The End of Violence. The first of these films follows La Vieja Trova Santiaguera from Havana to Europe on their first foreign tour, the latter accompanies Ry Cooder on a return visit to Havana to record a new album with the Buena Vista musicians, and takes us with them to concerts in Amsterdam and New York.

It is not an accident that the reader has very likely heard of, and even seen, the film by Wenders, but probably not the Dutch film. This is not because the one is better than the other, but is rather a straightforward index of the limited marketing power of an independent producer in a small European country compared to a director of international standing with record industry backing. In fact, these two music documentaries constitute a most interesting pair because, despite being very similar in many ways, they nevertheless, in certain respects, display significant differences. The similarity stems from the premise shared by the two films - both celebrate the musicians’ emergence onto the world stage and offer a portrait of their life back in an impoverished Cuba - and from the way they both go about it by presenting us with the musicians one by one, who introduce themselves by telling us when and where they were born; in the Wenders film, for example, vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer is in his seventies, pianist Rubén González in his eighties, and guitarist-singer Compay Segundo is over ninety. In both films, the musicians tell us little snippets about themselves, and we visit them at home and see them rehearsing. And, of course, the mood of both films is also very similar, since both groups play music from the same tradition and repertoire. But there is more to it than that. Both films are powerfully charged by a feeling which is not a primary property of the music but is produced by the image: in a word, nostalgia.

This is not say that music cannot be nostalgic, which, of course, would be nonsense, but, rather, that the two films bring to the screen a quality which was sensed by a commentator reviewing the CD of Buena Vista Social Club in the New York Review of Books. The cover photo, writes Alma Guillermoprieto, of a wiry old black man strolling along a dilapidated Havana street in his white cap and shoes, looking a little like Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess, allows us, she says, to decipher the reason for the success of this music: ‘When we see it, we feel heart-stopping nostalgia for something we did not realize we had been missing. That something is Cuba.’ What is happening here is partly that the music is becoming associated with images of present-day Cuba which preserves traces of a time long-gone in our own countries, such as the 1950s convertibles which have been kept going by loving Cuban drivers, evocative residues of the past on which Wenders, like other documentary makers before him - I have taken similar shots myself - allows his camera to linger. These cars have changed their symbolic meaning. Originally, they signified Cuba’s modernity; then they came to signify its arrested development, as the US turned its back and the island fell under Soviet tutelage; now, they have passed from being quaint becoming trophies of postmodernist retro, sought after by foreign tourists prepared to pay hard dollars for them.

On a symptomatic reading, therefore, what is registered Guillermoprieto’s comment is a change which the image of Cuba has undergone since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As Cuba has become a vestige of the Cold War, it is seen ever more clearly as a victim bullying by its overbearing neighbor. This is the point of Wenders’s pre-title sequence, in which the Cuban photographer Korda shows him prints of photos from the heroic early days - here is Che Guevara, for example, playing golf with Fidel Castro (‘Who won?’ - ‘Fidel, because Che let him’) - which ends on an image of a demonstration in front the US embassy which Korda calls 'David and Goliath.' But this stands as an enigmatic motto which allows Wenders largely to ignore politics for the remaining hundred minutes, though some of his performers do speak with pride of the path Cuba has chosen. The Dutch film is less coy, and has a whole section of interviews concerning how the Revolution benefited musicians by giving them steady employment and a regular wage. Nevertheless, the Cuba which both films evoke - through both the music and the memories of the musicians - is pre-revolutionary, and that is the truly nostalgic element. Alma Guillermoprieto is trying to get at a puzzle about the extraordinary success of this anachronistic music which also exercises more popular writers. According to an album reviewer on the internet, Buena Vista Social Club, which has sold more than a million copies around the world, was the hip hit of the season among the older demographic that I think of as the ‘midrock’ crowd, and which guitarist Ry Cooder, who produced and played on the album, has been known to call the ‘Jeep Cherokee set.’ These are affluent, well educated music buyers in their thirties and forties who do not often feel much kinship with the rap, rock and pop that dominates the youth-driven pop charts. This is an audience more likely to take its cues from National Public Radio (NPR) than Music Television (MTV), and whose interests are often piqued by a sense of the exotic. And, these days, Afro-Cuban music has become as sweetly seductive as the smoke of a contraband cigar.

But it is not clear that the audience for this music is as circumscribed as these commentators claim. The reason that a large number of people - actually of all ages and all sorts of sets - like this music is precisely because it does not sound like chart music. It does not use drum machines, it does not have artificial backing tracks, it is not electrical (except for Ry Cooder’s discreet slide guitar in Buena Vista Social Club), the voices - ah, the voices! - are unforced, melodious and entirely natural. This is good old acoustic music. And the result is that a music which is not primarily nostalgic, becomes so.


Part of the nostalgia that now attaches to it is directed towards the idea of a music before politics and social angst. Most of the songs are about affairs of the heart, love songs, stories of disappointment and infidelity - some are comic, none are political. But it is also part of this tradition to celebrate music and song itself. In the words of one of the numbers in Lagrimas Negras,
Si canto guaracha, lo hago que con sabor, Igual un bolero, como un Son Montuno, como un chachacha. Esto que yo tengo yo no lo compre, Lo traigo en el sange, se lo juro a Ud.
When I sing a guaracha, I do it with swing, The same with a bolero, a Son Montuno, or a chachacha, What I have has not been bought, It’s in my blood, I swear it.
And this, indeed, is what people feel in this music. It is not commercial, it is not a product of the profit motive. This becomes a further cause for nostalgia, productive of associations with a lost age of innocence. Thus, in another review on the internet, discussing Wenders’s film:
What is especially charming is that the film is as much a journey for its subjects - many of whom are in their 70s, 80s and 90s - as for its audience. Their childlike bliss at having been rediscovered in the twilight years of their lives, the wide-eyed wonder with which they greet their first trip to New York and their profound gratitude at receiving yet another chance to share their beloved music with the world, help create a narrative more affecting than anything in a mainstream Hollywood offering.
The trip to New York, which provides the film’s closing sequence, seems as if Wenders intended it to echo the enigmatic opening, ‘David and Goliath’, in another key, as it were, and with the theme inverted, as the wide-eyed old men go window shopping, and, from the top of the Empire State, point out the Statue of Liberty to each other. There is something calculated about this ending, which seems cynically to pander to the American viewer, Cuban or otherwise.

In Cuba itself, apart from a few rural areas and provincial towns where they still dance the traditional son and venerate the memory of the Trio Matamoros, nobody remembered these tenacious and jovial old-timers until Ry Cooder rediscovered them. Cooder had previously worked with Hawaiian, Indian and Japanese musicians, and, most notably, with Ali Farka Toure on Talking Timbuktu, a collaboration which serves as a benchmark for world fusion music. With Buena Vista Social Club, he has scored the biggest success of his career as an animator of world music, but, in Cuba, the results of his efforts reveal a politics of music which its foreign reputation hardly registers. As another Cuban friend puts it, ‘The youth consider them "Something like antediluvian monsters," to use the title of a book of poems by [Roberto Fernández] Retamar, which I think comes from a verse of Mayakovki's.' Ambrosio Fornet writes to me that there are different shades of opinion in Cuba about the international take-off of the 'Vieja Guardia Sonera' - the 'rearguard of son' - and, above all, about its consequent resuscitation back home. The common people on the streets are surprised and pleased.

Some young musicians and some music critics, who often criticize the music programmers on radio and television, are more ambivalent. 'They ask whom this praise is directed against, given how many people extol the "music of yesteryear" in bad faith, in order indirectly to attack the music of today.' For some time, Cuban radio stations have devoted large chunks of airplay to the son revival at the expense of young groups. This is the charge made in a recent interview by one of today’s most popular bandleaders, José Luis Cortés, known as El Tosco - tosco means rough, unpolished - who plays the kind of popular dance music known as timba, a variant of salsa. But, he quickly adds that the old-folk deserve the recognition they are receiving because they are the primogenitors.

The other place where this old-time music raises hackles is, of course, Miami, where Wenders's film had its American premiere, and where concerts by musicians from over the water are subjected to vilification and bomb-threats. According, once more, to an account published on the internet, 'the warm response to Wenders’ stirring film represents progress of sorts for a community still shaped by the feverish rightwing exile politics that have turned Miami into the nation’s most repressive city for artistic free expression.' But now, the report continues, the climate has begun to soften, and 'pulled along by the seductive, irresistible lure of both newer and older forms of Cuban music, a younger generation of Cuban-Americans is eager to rediscover its roots and seeks out the music without fear.'

Visually, the two films are rather different. In the Dutch film, the cinematography of Melle van Essen is a model of controlled attentive hand-held shooting, steady even in its many close-ups and detail shots, which we are allowed to watch without any musical backing. In the Wenders film, shot by Jörg Widmer and Robby Müller, the framing is generally looser, the camera rather less steady and controlled - except for a slightly mannered steadycam shot in the recording studio in which the camera encircles the singers several times. The Dutch film is shot on 16mm stock, the colour and light are softened, the image not a little romantic; the Wenders is shot in digital video and transferred to celluloid for cinema distribution, with the result that the image is harsh, and the colours distorted by excessive contrast. The result, however, is a representation of Havana which is much closer to the sad and bitter truth. Havana is not like any other Latin American metropolis, with stark contrasts between rich and poor, between centre, suburbs, and shanty towns - in short, the city as a map of the relations of power, ownership and production within dependent capitalism. You would not expect it to be. The problem now is one of upkeep, for which the lack of wherewithal has begun to take its toll. The whole city is crumbling, its variegated architectural expression disappearing behind peeling façades, with gaps where buildings with weakened walls have collapsed. Lagrimas Negras shows less of this, because it tends more often to stay indoors.

There are other differences in balance between the films - there is much more performance in Buena Vista Social Club, and more rehearsal in Lagrimas Negras, which makes it musically more interesting. Both films eschew explanations by experts, but Herman Dolz gives us a greater opportunity to see how the music is put together. Both films also make a point of contrasting age and youth. Wenders includes a particularly delightful sequence in which Rubén González plays the piano in a large hall to accompany children practising gymnastics and dance - one can see here exactly what Cubans mean when they call the old folk los super-abuelos ('the super grandfathers'). But the Dutch film is even better on the subject, for it shows us the children themselves making music, and not childish music but the Afro-Cuban call and response that belongs to santería. Here, we learn that even if the ancianos had been forgotten, the music which lies at the root of both old and new has far from disappeared. Old and young, however many the generations which separate them, belong to the same cultural tradition, and have not yet lost touch with their roots.

In the end, however, the most touching feature of both films is what these old musicians represent in the here-and-now, in the flesh, as it were. In contradistinction to the image of the elderly as silent sufferers of every kind of human indignity which keeps impinging on our television screens and filling the columns of our newspapers, these films restore to them and to us the voice and the dignity of old age. It is a quality they possess that they have not bought or stolen from anyone or anywhere, but which is lent to them by the music and expressed in the joy of the audiences that come to see and hear them. It is a great irony, which underlies both these films, that this restoration of humanity to the aged should issue from a rather small country which has been stigmatized as an affront to democratic freedom and accused of human rights violations. It is also testimony to the power of music to transcend political barriers, and a reason for believing in human resilience.

[This is a slightly edited version of an essay by Michael Chanan that originally appeared, along with notes and references, under the title 'Old-Time Cuban Music on the Screen' in New Left Review (No. 238, November-December 1999). Other essays on media and music by the author are available here.]

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