Photo by Donata Wenders”IF WE'D KNOWN IN ADVANCE WHAT WAS GOING to happen,” says Ry Cooder, “we might've had reservations about catapulting these people into the limelight. But you can't see something like this coming.” He's talking about Buena Vista Social Club, the Cooder-produced 1996 recording of obscure Cuban musicians that is now the subject of a new film directed by Wim Wenders. (See Film for a review.) “You could never mastermind something like this, and that's what makes these projects so interesting.”
Buena Vista Social Club, in all its permutations, is dear to the hearts of both Cooder and Wenders, and they're eager to discuss it with anyone who's interested — and wherever, in this case the sprawling, loftlike house in the Hollywood Hills that Wenders shares with his wife, Donata. Buena Vista Social Club the film, which opens this week, is Wenders and Cooder's third collaboration over the past 20 years, and that long working relationship has produced an enduring friendship. Indeed, one of the most moving things about the film is its loving portrait of Cooder.
“Ry and I met in the early '80s, when I contacted him about doing the score for Hammett,” recalls Wenders, referring to his 1983 film. “The studio wouldn't let me use him, though, so I had him score my next film, Paris, Texas.” The genesis of their latest collaboration, says Wenders, came “two years ago when Ry and I spent several weeks in the studio working on the score for my last film, The End of Violence. While we worked he told me stories about these Cuban musicians he'd just recorded, and once I heard the music I knew it was special. So we decided to make a film about it.”
“Most people never see records made,” Cooder interjects. “And one of the great things about the film is that it allows you to observe the organic progression of a recording. You see it in a quiet way, too, because these people are very casual about everything they do. At the same time, they're intensely involved in the music and have no 'professional' detachment from their songs, which tend to have complex narratives. You won't find any moon-June lyrics in Cuban songs, because the way they look at things is complicated, and their approach to songwriting is by necessity a very artful thing.”
Though Cooder had been regaling him with tales of Cuba for months before they began the shoot in the spring of 1998, Wenders admits that he “wasn't prepared for Cuba on any level. And once we got there we threw out every concept we'd had for the film, because I realized the shoot would be a process of discovery.”
For the director, who's presently editing his newest L.A.-based film, The Million Dollar Hotel, which was co-written and scored by Bono, that discovery centered mainly on the musicians. “I didn't know anything about these guys other than that they were great musicians, but as I got to know them and became aware of their life experience and inner strength, they became larger-than-life to me,” he says. “After a while I felt like I was making a movie with Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart.”
THE SEED OF BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB WAS planted in the mid-'70s, when a friend gave Cooder a cassette recording of vintage Cuban soul music. Cooder was enchanted by it, and in 1975 he and his wife, photographer Susan Titelman, went to Cuba in hopes of tracking down some of the players. They were unsuccessful, but Cooder never forgot the music, so when producer Nick Gold invited him to Cuba to record local musicians, he jumped at the chance.
“There were people we looked for who'd died, but the incredible thing is how many of them were still around,” says Cooder, who was assisted in his search by Cuban musician Juan de Marcos Gonzalez. “None of these people had ever played together, because of stylistic differences, which are strictly observed down there. I knew there was no sense in conforming to any one of those styles, because it's pointless to re-create classic records, so what we did instead was try to push the envelope in another direction.”
Buena Vista Social Club presents a synthesis of many different styles, but all of them are rooted in descarga, which Cooder defines as “an improvised tune, usually instrumental. It's not unlike jazz in that it tends to be very flexible and fluid, and unfortunately it's a dying form in Cuba. There aren't many young Cuban musicians devoting themselves to preserving these traditions, because young Cubans are struggling to join the world. They're into rap and hip-hop because they have to be — they see it as survival.”
“As beautiful as it is,” adds Wenders, “the Cuba depicted in the film must come to an end, because people lack the necessities of life. They're highly educated, yet there's great suffering and shortages of everything. The biggest challenge during the shoot, in fact, was feeding the crew, because there simply isn't much food there.”
This deprivation, says Cooder, is why the Buena Vista Social Club collection wasn't a big seller in Cuba. “It didn't chart there, because it wasn't for sale. There's no mechanism to sell music in Cuba, because they don't have stores, nobody has a CD player, and a CD costs $25, which is what a doctor makes in a month. They know it exists, because they hear cuts on the radio, but few people have heard the entire CD. There's no record industry in Cuba as we know it, and music isn't thought of as a career. Musicians always have day jobs, and they see music as a vocation. Consequently, there's no ego or jockeying for position, and they don't turn people into product and call them stars.”
That may change now that Cuba's musical community has tasted the forbidden fruit of capitalism. But for now, the story of Buena Vista Social Club remains a sweet fairy tale.
“Ibrahim Ferrer sang for 60 years and never had his name on a record until now,” says Cooder, who has produced a Ferrer solo album slated for release next week on World Circuit Records. “He'd basically given up because his style of music had faded, partly because the Castro regime took a dim view of it. So these guys are ecstatic because they're finally getting some recognition, not to mention the fact that they're able to live better. They still live in houses most Americans wouldn't put their dog in, of course, but they do have access to things they didn't previously have access to.
“The thing that thrills them most, however, is that they're getting to perform,” Cooder adds. “Ibrahim and [pianist] Ruben Gonzalez are touring Europe, and they'll be in L.A. in November. Compay Segundo [who plays guitar and tres] is 92, and he's touring Europe this week. Cubans age more gracefully than we do, probably because they don't have much stress in their lives. Urban stress is what kills everybody, and these guys don't have that problem. They may later.”
“They're innocent and mischievous, and they're funny,” says Wenders. “They're not a bunch of pricks.”