Buena Vista Social Club

Jun 16, 1999 at 12:00 am

Riding in one of the immaculately preserved, vintage American cars that dot the streets of Havana, 92-year-old singer-guitarist Compay Segundo is trying to pinpoint the location of the long-defunct Buena Vista Social Club. Once the place to see pre-revolutionary Cuba’s best musicians, it is now only a vague memory even to longtime residents of the neighborhood.

After some debate among the men they encounter, an elderly woman steps forward with solid information and Segundo recognizes her as a former dancer at the club. This moment in Wim Wenders’ documentary may seem like a remarkable coincidence, but it’s only a small example of the good fortune that shone on the Buena Vista Social Club project from its inception.

Initially arriving in Havana to produce a world-music fusion session in 1996, American musician extraordinaire Ry Cooder ended up looking for some of the surviving old-timers who performed the distinctive Cuban son style. What he unearthed was a treasure trove of talent that was still alive and very much kicking.

Forming a virtual supergroup, these Cuban musicians recorded the Grammy-winning album Buena Vista Social Club and garnered a worldwide audience. Now these players, long forgotten even in their native Cuba and most well into AARP age, find themselves in the midst of an unexpected career revival, to the benefit of Cuban music lovers everywhere.

This lovely, graceful and heartfelt music documentary follows Ry Cooder and his percussionist son Joachim as they return to Cuba to record a solo album with 72-year-old singer Ibrahim Ferrer. Intercut into that studio footage are several wonderful performances – in Amsterdam and Carnegie Hall – of the Buena Vista collective, as well as interviews with the musicians in Havana and New York.

Wim Wenders captures something remarkable in Buena Vista Social Club, not just the ambience of Cuba but a particular glow, the fire that fuels the passion of these remarkable musicians. In a country whose long isolation has resulted in extraordinary hardships, they continue to produce hauntingly beautiful music which is also an expression of their resilience and pride.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].