Buena Vista Social Club.Via Flickr

The Music of the Buena Vista Social Club

Under the ruthless rule of General Fulgencio Batista, playing for the glitzy social clubs of Havana, more than one generation of Cuban musicians freely and happily cultivated their unique national sound.
Santiago Ramos

Protest singers, not lounge acts, are the musicians who live in fear during a dictatorship. Under the ruthless rule of General Fulgencio Batista, this axiom held true: playing for the glitzy social clubs of Havana–notoriously patronized by wealthy American capitalists–more than one generation of Cuban musicians freely and happily cultivated their unique national sound, a blend of African beats, Caribbean melodies, picaresque lyrics, Santeria imagery, and Baroque Catholicism. In clubs like the Tropicana, Atenas, and the legendary Buena Vista Social Club, the happy musicians played love songs, or boleros, country laments known as guajiras, or danced to a Son Cubano, a long semi-improvisational song featuring bongos, piano, and guitars. The music had depth, though the party never seemed to end. More than one crooner, however, would have noticed the foreboding lines in one 19th century guajira:

Todo se ha vuelto un cuento, 
Porque no ha llegado la hora fatal. 
(Everything has become a fairy tale
 Because the day of reckoning has not come.)

The day of reckoning did come, on the first day of 1959, when an exhausted population in Havana said goodbye to their brutal dictator and welcomed the revolutionary movement of Fidel Castro. Under the short subsequent presidency of Manuel Urrutia Lleó, all the social clubs were shut down as part of a societal sanitization plan that also included the closure of brothels and casinos. The clubs did not reopen when the more radical Castro became president, for they were said to be relics of the country’s capitalist past. Breaking with the axiom, the new tyrant favored the protest singers of the burgeoning Nueva Trova (“New Song”) movement–who sang about the plight and liberation of the Latin American peoples–over the Afro-Cuban musicians of the social clubs. The club musicians were not persecuted; they merely had nowhere to play, and found employment outside the world of entertainment.

In 1996, an American producer named Ry Cooder traveled to Cuba and met many of the surviving relics of Havana’s Golden Era. Astonished that these aging musicians could still play with skill and verve, he brought them together to record the album Buena Vista Social Club, which was followed in 1999 by a documentary of the same name directed by the German filmmaker Wim Wenders. Both the album and the film center on a holy trinity of musicians whose musical skill matches their status as legends: the singer Ibrahim Ferrer, the pianist Rubén González, and the virtuoso guitarist Francisco Repilado (a.k.a. Compay Segundo). Cooder got there just in time: González and Repilado passed away in 2003; Ferrer in 2005.

Cooder and Wenders are like archaeologists dealing with living subjects. In the album, the music seems alive and fresh, purer and more pleasant than many of the more commercial mambos and boleros coming from elsewhere in Latin America. In the film, we see that this life survives like a ghost lingering on a putrefying corpse: the decimation wrought by fifty years of Communist dictatorship is clear and harsh. Cooder and Wenders have rescued an important part of the Latin American musical patrimony, and their work forces the listener to ponder the vehemence and durability of the totalitarian ideology that marginalized the music in the first place.
Yet these songs could never be fully forgotten, they are so beautiful. “Y Tú Qué Has Hecho?” (“And You, What Have You Done?”), a precious plea to a former lover, captures in eight lines and three minutes what John Mayer couldn’t say with an entire album. The long sones, “El Cuarto de Tula” (“Tula’s Bedroom”) and “Candela” (“Fire”) are each an erotic dance of strings and drums and contain lines so witty, so piquant, that they are almost untranslatable. (I welcome anyone to attempt to translate these: La mujer cuando se agacha/ Se le habre el entendimiento/ Y el hombre cuando lo mira/ Se le para el pensamiento. The liner notes poorly translate the last line as, “His brain stops.” The pun is lost…) A few lines from the bolero “Veinte Años” (“Twenty Years”), sung by the only woman in the album, Omara Portuondo, express the mostly undetectable undercurrent of nostalgia in every track: “Fuí la ilusión de tu vida/ Un día lejano ya/ Hoy represento al pasado/ No me puedo conformar.” (“I was your life’s dream/ One day long ago/ Now I represent the past/ I can’t conform myself to this.”) 

Beholding at once such beauty and such loss, one is prompted to ask: Where did these songs come from? Why did they refuse to forget them? On its next day of reckoning, when the dark mist of Communism ascends from the brutalized isle, these questions will have to be answered.