Many of the marvelous Cuban musicians and singers in Wim Wenders’s wonderful documentary Buena Vista Social Club are well beyond 60, but they don’t see themselves as aged. Onstage, jamming together, or in smaller recording sessions, they have an aliveness that obliterates any concerns we might have about their frailty. It’s not simply that music keeps these artists vital. It’s as if they never grew old at all. I’ve never seen another movie that so clearly expresses the sensual sustenance that great folk culture provides its practitioners.
The film grew out of sessions with the artists in 1996 organized by the guitarist, composer, and record producer Ry Cooder; the album that resulted, called Buena Vista Social Club in honor of one of East Havana’s long-gone music-and-dance emporiums, became a surprise best-seller worldwide, revitalizing many careers. In 1998, Wim Wenders, returning with Cooder to Havana, filmed the musicians as they recorded an album showcasing bolero singer Ibrahim Ferrer. During their days off, Wenders filmed them talking, informally, about their pasts.
The 92-year-old guitar and tres player Compay Segundo, with his wide, lewd smile, and Ruben Gonzalez, the 80-year-old jazz-and-mambo pianist whom Cooder once described as a Cuban cross between Thelonious Monk and Felix the Cat, seem to exist totally within the realm of their music. As with most folk artists, their sounds are inextricable from the anecdotage of their lives. Their stories, their histories, are all of a piece with the words they sing and the notes they play – with their lilt and whoop and glide. The performers are ecstatically comfortable in the spotlight and equally at ease away from it. The way they carry themselves offstage is gently stylized, as if, in sauntering down the streets or roaming about their cramped apartments, they were shimmying up to the fates. The graceful slow-motion swing of their movements is a kind of offering – a way of acknowledging the blessing that has been bestowed upon them by a life of music.
Ibrahim Ferrer, whom Cooder brought out of oblivion, says at one point, “We Cubans are very fortunate – we have learned to resist the good and the bad.” This lyrical evenness of temperament shows up in his vocalizing, which seems beyond the injuries of infirmity or society’s neglect. In his white jacket and white cap, the 72-year-old Ferrer, with his soft speaking voice and beautiful, becalmed face, is a radiant icon of elegance. The implicit assumption behind his singing – it was the same with Nat “King” Cole – is that there is silk to be found in the jumble of the world. Ferrer’s voice draws out a clean, silky line; it’s so pure it doesn’t seem to be born of experience – it’s just there, floating and seraphic. His sounds represent a dream of how we wish our drudgeries and defeats could be recomposed, transcended.
Wenders filmed the Cuban artists along with Cooder and Cooder’s drummer son Joachim performing not only in Havana but also in concert in Amsterdam and, triumphantly, in Carnegie Hall. (It was the first time most of the Cubans had been to New York.) The best group number in the movie, Compay Segundo’s “Chan Chan,” is also its first; it has the slow stealth of a leopard’s lope, and it seems to tune your entire body as you listen to it. Segundo – born Francisco Repilado and raised in Santiago – has a deep-down gladness, almost a mirth, when he plays guitar and sings. He’s immensely tickled by the provocativeness – the presence of the carnal – in his tone. He’s a great old bawd: His seductions are embracing, but there’s some heavy fondling in the embrace.
The irony reflected by this movie is that, on the one hand, everybody who listens to the traditionally acoustic Afro-Cuban music is turned on by it: not just the musicians and recording engineers and audiences but the people in the street. (At one point, the terrific bolero singer Omara Portuondo, the only female in the group, starts wailing, and a passerby, a middle-aged woman, joins in as if to do so were the most natural thing in the world.) And yet this is a minority music in Cuba, in the same way that jazz is in America. The neglect that these musicians fell into parallels what happened to many of our jazz and blues legends. Even before Communism’s full flowering, many of their careers were on the wane, and Wenders is wise not to politicize their plight. Swooning right along with the rest of us, he’s too carried away by the music for that.
We understand completely what Ry Cooder is talking about when he says he prepared his whole life to produce these artists; he first heard tapes of Cuban musicians back in the seventies and made a trip to Havana to hear more, but it wasn’t until 1996 that he was able to return and make recordings. The music is a siren call for Cooder; when he joins in on the Buena Vista sessions, he’s not being a bwana but insinuating himself into the music as an act of devotion. (His son Joachim, the drummer, in the course of just moving about the streets, seems to boogie with a perpetual beat, as if Cuba itself were one big jam session.)
Cooder is an exemplary artist-producer. He’s mixed in the celebrated older Cuban musicians with some younger members of the group, such as the astonishing laud player Barbarito Torres, and, on bongos, Julienne Oviedo Sanchez, who also plays with the new-style big band N G La Banda. The result, although you would never think of it in such academic terms, is an anthology of Cuban musical styles. The mesh is perfect; it all goes together, and the beaming faces of the performers conferring joy on one another is itself a piece of music. “I’m under the spell of this,” Ibrahim Ferrer says with poignant simplicity as he walks down Fifth Avenue before his Carnegie Hall appearance. Watching this movie, we’re spellbound, too. We’re in a state of rapt, sexy, swinging awe.