A handheld camera drifts carelessly along the seafront, fixated on the antique cars and the dilapidated balconies of Havana; the sun kisses each just enough to hide the rust. As Joachim Cooder rides in the sidecar of a motorbike driven by his father Ry, he cracks a smile – the bewilderment of the locals isn’t apparent to him. The two of them are in the process of recording Buena Vista Social Club, an album (and documentary of the same name) that showcases traditional Cuban music, neatly packaged for the American audience; the camera is being directed by Wim Wenders, documentary film-maker. On the other side of the world, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 would devastate the Cuban economy and bring the country into the well-documented ‘special period.’
However, in Buena Vista Social Club – “we witness, for a deep purpose yet to be revealed, a suspension of the reality of Cuba, both historic and present.” The omission of Government censorship – like the banning of the saxophone, banning of certain musicians (in 2012 previously censored musicians were taken off of a blacklist that was given to radio stations unofficially), and censorship within lyrics were all common occurences. The glaring disconnect between reality and fantasy is gigantic – and the refusal to engage with the past staggering.
An exciting past that it is too: the origins of Cuban music; afrocubanismo, the Spanish Catholic Church’s influence on Cuban music, how Cuban music has affected American music. Singer Compay Segundo, a central character to the documentary, was 92 in 1999; yet his age is only documented to as a means to congratulate Cooder for the favour of “propelling him to stardom.”
But Wenders and Cooder aren’t historical hobbyists, they’re both at work, and their job is to market the music, the musicians and the impossible city – Havana. The city where spontaneous, communal singing needs no occasion in the street – from porch to porch the words are like the backs of your hands, but something creeps beneath the community. In Elides Bustamante bumbling through his neighbourhood wielding his guitar, in Rubén González playing piano for the children in the gymnasium – it’s daytime T.V. and it serves to perpetuate a new myth where a strange thing occurs; the musicians proceed to prove just how Cuban they are:
“I am Eliades Ochoa Bustamante. I was born in Santiago, Cuba, on June 22 in the year 1946. My mother, Jacoba Bustamante, played the tres, and my father played the tres. A musical family. I was born a country boy, of course. From the time I awoke in the morning, I began listening to music. Besides having music in my blood, I heard music night and day. In 1958, I was the same size as a guitar.”
The revolution will be trivialised, with ease, and Buena Vista Social Club wants to give you the full Cuban experience. The intoxicating haze, the graffiti, the city is the product – the musicians are the jewels to be dug up, vintage American cars lying on the side of the streets – people congregating at the hood. You’ve got to make sure that the product is dope: and as an advert for Cuba to shift away from its political past, the documentary is useful to say the least.
“The real story of the Buena Vista Social Club is about how Ry Cooder sculpted an award-winning album for Western audiences from the “native clay” he discovered in Havana.” And what use is a great discovery if you can’t take it back to the civilised world and parade it around? No use, really. Yet the discovery in ‘Buena Vista Social Club’ is a complete falsehood; Cooder assembled a group of musicians and then recorded an album of their music, a common occurrence that usually doesn’t constitute a discovery. Of course the praise was staggering though – The New York Times declared the documentary had a “fairy-tale ending” and the Washington Post highlighted specifically the “discovery” within the documentary – both crucially missed the point.
But we aren’t really praising Cooder as a musician, we are praising him as an exporter of culture – better yet, a saviour who bestowed fame onto those deemed suitably marketable. What we are fawning over is a dilution of culture, and we are even patting ourselves on the back for engaging with another world, despite how shallow our interaction with material is. Time magazine wrote: “at 72, singer Ibrahim Ferrer at last finds fame,” that fame would be widespread too – the album reached platinum certification in the United States and the documentary brought in $23m worldwide at the box office, the social club are Hollywood sensations.
A film has a finale – and a grand one if it’s a good film, Cooder and Wenders dutifully display their prizes up on stage in front of an American audience, how could they declare the project a success otherwise? The film cuts between Ibrahim Ferrer’s “childlike delight at the city’s grandeur” and the group performing at Carnegie Hall, New York – whilst attempting to mask the lack of meaningful discourse the documentary covered, but it creates the cheap cross-cultural exchange it needed to. “The ‘leaving’ sequence encapsulates this subliminal but unrelenting import of the film: it is time for Cuban culture to return home, to the larger musical and societal culture of the United States of America where it belongs, and where the recognition denied it ‘at home’ awaits it.”
Buena Vista Social Club is not an abhorrent documentary, but the pervasiveness of the Hollywood narrative that permeates it derails any real discussion; political disorder and musical progression, these distractions only harshen the idyllic scene. But who are the real up-setters here? You’re looking out onto the water, hypnotised for the thousandth time by the most familiar sound, you look up and see Joachim Cooder performing an exorcism on a bongo drum, just five steps away from his father Ry’s nauseating smile – Havana’s a beach and then you die.
*Quotes taken from J. Scott Oberacker’s: ‘Affecting the Embargo: Displacing Politics in the Buena Vista Social Club’ and ‘Buena Vista Social Club: local meets global and lives happily ever after’ by Marivic Wyndham and Peter Read.