Three years ago, American guitarist and record producer Ry Cooder went to Havana at the behest of the London-based World Circuit record label to capture something of the flavor of traditional Cuban music. The musicians he corralled were an assortment of has-beens, guitarist Compay Segundo and pianist Rubén González, and never-weres, singer Ibrahim Ferrer, but the three albums that were the result- Buena Vista Social Club , A Toda Cuba le Gusta , by the Afro-Cuban All Stars, and Introducing … Rubén González -have sold nearly 3 million copies worldwide. In New York, at least, you could pipe the opening bars of “Chan Chan,” the lead cut off the B.V.S.C. album, into a Starbucks and patrons would probably snap to attention, so stirringly familiar is the melody of Mr. Segundo’s tune. The Beacon Theater concert on Oct. 22 by Mr. Ferrer and Mr. González sold out immediately, as have two hastily organized return engagements on Feb. 4 and 5.
But for the vast majority of us shut out from live Buena Vista (the usual shorthand for the original albums and musicians), we’ll always have the movie, Buena Vista Social Club , Wim Wenders’ engaging documentary of Mr. Cooder’s exploits, which has settled in for extended runs at both the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza theaters. In fact, in this film, we may have a more incisive introduction to the peculiar world of Buena Vista than any live performance could provide.
In the opening scene, Mr. Segundo, at 92 the oldest and most charismatic of the Cuban musicians enshrined in the film, looks around the outskirts of Havana for the site of the actual, historical Social Club. No one seems quite sure where it is, or where it was, and judging by the smile on the guitarist’s face, the place could have been cooked up by World Circuit Records in London, for all that he cares. Buena Vista, we come to understand, is a state of mind, a musical balm for United States-Cuban relations (the 90’s version of 70’s United States-China “ping-pong diplomacy”) and a spectacularly lucrative recording industry-within-an-industry.
But how, you might ask, did Buena Vista become World Music’s answer to Beatlemania? For starters, North American fascination with Latin rhythm is old hat. The habanera rhythm was an important element in early New Orleans jazz, underlined by Jelly Roll Morton’s endlessly cited dictum that good jazz should have “a Spanish tinge.” Later, in the early 30’s, a tune by Don Azpiazú’s Havana Casino Orchestra, “El Manicero,” or “The Peanut Vendor,” excited the first bona fide Latin craze in the United States, to be followed by the mambo mania of the 50’s and the Latin jazz boom in the 70’s. So perhaps we were due for another Latin wave, only this time it was intensified by our current passion for musical rootsiness-as long as they sound authentic-bound up in the catch-all label, World Music. All that, and the records were terrific.
Abetted by the slow twang of his own slide guitar, Mr. Cooder managed to turn back the clock, and the metronome, on Latin music. His assembled cast of graybeards, and middle-aged throwbacks like singer and guitarist Eliades Ochoa and lutist Barbarito Torres, covered a range of the older styles, from the bedrock of son , Cuba’s original Afro-European fusion, to guajiros , or peasant songs, to the romantic ballads, or boleros . Gringo ears with only passing familiarity with Latin music could perhaps for the first time latch on to those rhythms that had whizzed by them in brassy and somewhat frantic salsa music. With Mr. Cooder at the dials, the urban dance element gives way to a brilliant, bumptious country music, where guitarists and singers rule and the (lone) trumpeter knows his place.
As Mr. Wenders signals at the beginning of his movie, this isn’t musical history; this mixing and matching of eras and styles is sheer invention. In a later scene, Joachim Cooder, Mr. Cooder’s son, who plays percussion on the Buena Vista albums, describes the group as “a bizarre band that never existed in the 60’s, or something.” And “Chan Chan” is its perfectly pitched, bawdy anthem (in translation, “How her bottom shook and/ Chan Chan was aroused!”), a son written by one of the early masters of the form, Compay Segundo, but only just recently.
Alas, Mr. Segundo (real name: Francisco Repilado) won’t be playing on the upcoming Beacon Theater concerts. The Buena Vistans have been reinvented on such a grand commercial scale, they now comprise too much star power to fit under one roof. Mr. Segundo, who was actually rediscovered in Europe a couple years before Buena Vista, goes his own way with a heavy European touring schedule and a stream of new albums, last fall’s Lo Mejor de la Vida and, out on Nov. 2, Calle Salud (both on Nonesuch). In the Buena Vista movie, Mr. Segundo comes across like a genial and lecherous great-uncle; musically, he is no less insinuating. While his guitar playing is undiminished (he plays a cross between a guitar and the traditional Cuban tres ), his singing is now little more than a baritone croak. But paired with strong lead singers, he can sound like the voice of the son itself, a dark rumble from the music’s birthplace in the eastern hill country of Cuba.
With apologies to Mr. Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer and Rubén González are, for me, the most compelling singer and instrumentalist to have emerged from Buena Vista. Mr. Ferrer was the one out-of-the-blue discovery, a onetime second-billing singer in the 50’s who had descended into complete obscurity. At the time of the Buena Vista sessions, he was supporting himself and his family as a shoeshine man in the streets of Havana. As the story goes, someone yanked Mr. Ferrer into the recording session, he warmed up by launching into the classic bolero “Dos Gardenias,” and Mr. Cooder had the good sense to turn on the tape recorder. To my ears, there is nothing on Mr. Ferrer’s recent debut album, Buena Vista Social Club Presents Ibrahim Ferrer , quite so perfect as “Dos Gardenias,” but his sweet, slightly wavy voice invests a handful of romantic tunes with memorable anguish.
For pianist Rubén González, 80 years old, Buena Vista represents the triumph of the sideman. Unlike Mr. Ferrer, Mr. González has had a long and distinguished musical career but always in a star band leader’s shadow, first with Arsenio Rodríguez, the father of the mambo, and then with Enrique Jorrin, the father of the cha-cha-cha. From the glimpse we get in the Wenders film, it’s easy enough to picture Mr. González at the time of the Buena Vista sessions, an abstracted, white-bearded figure, unable to afford his own piano, haunting the piano bars and restaurants of Havana just to have a place to play. By all accounts, during the two weeks he served as the pianist on the two scheduled Buena Vista album sessions, he visibly, audibly came alive and Mr. Cooder had the inspired idea to devote a third album to him. If Buena Vista Social Club is a masterpiece by a band that never really existed, Introducing … Rubén González is, by contrast, the document of a man who has waited his entire life to set down what he knows. The album is a small encyclopedia of Cuban musical forms- cha-cha-chá , guaracha , danzón , son montuno -interpreted with a harmonic sophistication that he and a handful of Cuban pianist peers, most now deceased, absorbed from American jazz in the 50’s. (Mr. González’s follow-up album is expected in February.)
The Ferrer-González concerts promise much but I would be surprised if they match the intensity of the full Buena Vista Club’s one and only North American performance at Carnegie Hall in the summer of ’98. That concert provided Mr. Wenders’ film with its single most indelible moment, Ibrahim Ferrer frozen on stage, looking out at the wildly cheering audience. We’d seen Mr. Ferrer earlier in the movie attending to his personal shrine of St. Lazarus in his shabby little Havana apartment. At Carnegie Hall, Mr. Ferrer is struck dumb by his own resurrection.