Viva “Buena Vista Social Club”

In spite of volatile Cuban-American exile politics, Wim Wenders' documentary 'Buena Vista Social Club' wins over Miami

Topics: Music,

A little over a week ago, the aging Cuban musicians from the
Buena Vista Social Club played in the heart of notoriously anti-Castro Miami, and, this time, there were no firebombs, no protests, no violent attacks on the audience.

They played a lilting and sensuously rhythmic music from the old Havana of
the 1940s and 1950s, and the mostly Cuban-American audience greeted these
players with robust applause, affection and a fond nostalgic remembrance of
their lost Cuba.

Of course, the musicians were only there on a movie screen in the
U.S. premiere of Wim Wenders’ lovely new documentary, “Buena Vista Social Club,” inspired by the Grammy-winning, Ry Cooder-produced album of the same name. Indeed, when a
few of the musicians showed up last year to play in person for a music industry
conference in Miami Beach, hundreds of protesters chanted outside and the
convention center hall was cleared briefly because of a bomb threat. Still, the
warm response to Wenders’ stirring film represents progress of sorts for a
community still shaped by the feverish right-wing exile politics that have
turned Miami into the nation’s most repressive city for artistic free
expression. Cuban-born Raquel Vallejo, a member of the Miami Beach Cultural
Council, went to last year’s bomb-threatened concert and also attended the
Wenders screening at the Miami Film Festival. “Isn’t it ironic,” she told a
friend, “that a lot of the people clapping tonight were [probably] the same
people involved in the protests outside the convention hall?”

The screening was held in a refurbished movie palace, the Gusman
Center for the Performing Arts, that less than three years ago was the site of an ugly near-riot
protesting the appearance of Cuban jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Hundreds
screamed epithets at those daring to hear him, then some spat on incoming
audience members or allegedly attacked them with Cuban flags.

Although such protesters are often dismissed as a fringe element, they’re
bolstered by the shameful silence of the area’s political leaders who
generally won’t condemn even the most violent protests — including the
firebombing of a restaurant that planned to feature a Cuban singer — as well
as by a rabid local Spanish-language radio industry that foments anti-Castro extremism and
refuses to play any Cuban music.

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In the last few years, though, the climate has softened, pulled
along by the seductive, irresistible lure of both newer and older forms of
Cuban music. A younger generation of Cuban-Americans is eager to rediscover
its roots and seeks out the music without fear. “There’s a tremendous
difference in the politics of freedom of expression in this community since
the Rubalcaba incident,” says John De Leon, the president of the local branch
of the ACLU. A few Cuban artists have played in clubs without incident in the
more tolerant city of Miami Beach, there’s a popular music club in Miami’s
Little Havana called Cafe Nostalgia and, on this Friday night at Gusman,
Wenders is the audience’s tour guide to the glories of son music from
pre-revolutionary Cuba. In addition to all the demographic and political
shifts, there’s an underlying reason for the growing acceptance: “There’s
something magical about the music,” observes De Leon.

The film celebrates the musicians’ performance
on the world stage and offers a portrait of their
life back in an impoverished Cuba. It artfully mixes footage of their
triumphant concert appearances in Amsterdam and Carnegie Hall last year with
musician interviews and shots of a new recording session for crooner Ibrahim
Ferrer’s solo album. The film and the Ferrer album (which includes some of the
Buena Vista players) will be released nationally in early June.

Ferrer is the tender heart of the movie. He is a soft-spoken 72-year-old who had been a singer with the legendary Benny Moré band in the
1950s, but who was shining shoes at the time Cooder’s team rediscovered him
for the Buena Vista album. As he says in the film, he was literally
plucked off the street while taking a walk, shoe polish still on him, and
brought into the studio to sing that same day.

Wenders’ dazzling camera swirls around Ferrer and the accompanying
musicians — including a laid-back Cooder on slide guitar — as he pours his
feelings into love ballads. One of the movie’s high-points is a duet on a
sinuous bolero, “Silencio,” that begins in the studio with Ferrer and a proud
69-year-old Omara Portuondo singing directly to each other from opposite
microphones, then cuts to them finishing the song in the Amsterdam concert,
Portuondo overwhelmed by the song’s emotion and the ovation they
receive. She bends her head as tears fall, and Ferrer gently hugs her and
brushes the tears away.

Back in Cuba, we see the run-down home of Ferrer and his
younger wife as he mentions how life is better for him now. He refrains,
though, from
explicitly discussing the Castro government’s impact on conditions in Cuba;
indeed, there are very few political references in the film — except for,
say, a shot
of a sign proclaiming something like “The Revolution Is Forever” — and,
surprisingly, the crowd at Gusman didn’t boo or hiss them. But for
musicians such as Ferrer, their real faith is not in politics, but in
music. And, for Ferrer, there’s yet another inspiration: He is also a
fervent believer in the saints of the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion
whom he enshrines with daily flowers and candles in his home. He carries a
good-luck totem with the carved head of St. Lazarus, or Babalu-aye, with him
wherever he travels.

After being ignored for years in his own country, it’s touching to
see an awestruck Ferrer wandering along Broadway, and then soaking
up the audience’s love for him and his music at Carnegie Hall. At the
concert’s end, a Cuban flag is brought up to the Carnegie stage, and the
tumultuous cheering on the screen, a powerful mix of longing and pride and
musical ecstasy, was echoed by waves of applause from the Cuban-Americans in
the Miami theater.

Emotions ran so high in Gusman that there was
scattered crying
throughout the crowd. Latin music critic Judy Cantor of the weekly Miami New
Times noted later that the woman next to her sobbed, “It’s so beautiful –
and so sad,” referring to the country’s deterioration. Cantor also said that
for older exiles, “One of the big reasons it’s OK to listen is that it’s
pre-revolutionary music, not the music of today’s Cuba.” But even that isn’t good enough for some anti-Castroites, explained
60-year-old, Cuban-born Ophelia Martín Hudson, although she
enjoyed the film: “The wound is still there. It’s like asking Jews during the
Holocaust to listen to German music.”

Even in Miami, though, the film overpowered that sort of lingering
resentment. As Nat Chediak, the film festival director, remarked contentedly
afterward while puffing on a (non-Cuban) cigar, “The film succeeds because
music transcends politics.”

Art Levine is a contributing editor at Washington Monthly.

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