In all probability, it was just a coincidence that in July the House of Representatives voted to repeal some of the more draconian aspects of the economic embargo against Cuba the day after PBS aired Buena Vista Social Club, Wim Wenders's Oscar-nominated documentary film about an instantly lovable aggregation of Cuban crooners and virtuoso instrumentalists, several of whom are in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. Only time will tell if the love songs of Ibrahim Ferrer, Cuba's answer to Nat King Cole, or the cascading piano runs of Rubén González, whose originality has prompted comparisons with Thelonious Monk, will be the soundtrack for the United States's contorted mambo toward normalization with Cuba. Still, the national broadcast gave millions here their first real look into Cuban culture, guided by the likes of singer/guitarist Compay Segundo, an endearing nonagenarian who sings of shaking bottoms and boasts of the efficacy of his rum hangover prevention regimen.
The growing infatuation with Cuban music in some ways mirrors the South African music boomlet triggered by singer/songwriter Paul Simon's Graceland. Not only did Graceland open the doors to the U.S. market for such black South African artists as the male a cappella singers Ladysmith Black Mambazo, but it conveyed a sense of the soul of a black South Africa in the grips of apartheid. The surprisingly popular CD Buena Vista Social Club (issued in the United States on Nonesuch, it has sold close to a million copies here and garnered a Grammy) has accomplished something similar, introducing Americans to, among others, vocalist Omara Portuondo and vocalist/guitarist Eliades Ochoa. (They each have a U.S. tour this fall, as does Segundo.)
One of the closest, most troubling comparisons between Graceland and Buena Vista Social Club is the presence of a white American frontman. To be sure, Ry Cooder merely shaped Buena Vista Social Club through his dual role as producer/guitarist rather than appropriating the music for his own songs as Simon did. Moreover, Cooder was clearly the best musician for the job, the equivalent of the Good Housekeeping seal for many U.S. music consumers: Since the early 1970s, Cooder has culled through American and world music traditions to create classic discs in collaboration with master musicians like Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure. To his credit, Cooder kept the obviously inauthentic twang and whine of his trademark slide guitar in the mid-ground of the mix with the Cubans, both on disc and in concert.
Still, Cooder, Nonesuch, and now PBS have reinforced the idea in the minds of millions of American listeners that Buena Vista Social Club is synonymous with Cuban music. In fact, Buena Vista is just a sliver of it. Cuba is a hothouse of great music. Its relative isolation from the homogenizing influence of U.S. culture has left the varietal splendor of Cuban music intact. Traditional forms have been better preserved than the vintage automobiles that crop up in every photograph and video clip of Old Havana. Yet Cuba is sufficiently porous to allow younger Cuban musicians to keep up with international music trends. As a result, Cuba is also producing vibrant new strains of contemporary music such as timba brava, which combines salsa rhythms with elements of hip-hop, funk, and jazz. There are generational differences to be savored between the courtly violins and flutes of charanga bands like Orquestra Aragon (which was famous when Fidel Castro was still struggling with his curve ball) and the congas and turntable-driven són rap fusion of the Gen X musicians of Orishas (són is the African-derived song form that became the nucleus of salsa). But just as intriguing, there is also a continuity of spirit that transcends genre.
Even though Cuban music is enjoying an unprecedented high profile here, the U.S. trade embargo still imposes real obstacles for Cuban musicians and for U.S. record and concert producers, who are not allowed to do business directly with their Cuban counterparts. Buena Vista Social Club and follow-up CDs by several of its members--including Portuondo and Segundo--are licensed to Nonesuch by the U.K. World Circuit label. Blue Note, the flagship U.S. jazz label, obtains its blue-chip Cuban jazz recordings--even pianist Chucho Valdés's recent Live at the Village Vanguard--from the Canadian division of its parent corporation, EMI.
Some of the best Cuban musicians have responded to this dilemma by organizing U.S. performances through agents and artist/collaborators based in third-party countries, most frequently Canada and France. Such arrangements produced the two hottest Cuban music tickets of the summer: descarga juggernauts Maraca y Otra Vision, who have a French agent, and Canadian saxophonist/flutist Jane Bunnett's Spirits of Havana project, which includes powerhouse pianist Hilario Duran. Both toured the United States in support of excellent new releases--Maraca's ÁDescarga Total! (Ahí-Namá) and Bunnett's Ritmo + Soul (Blue Note). But only a privileged few Cuban musicians can work around the restrictions. When the doors to the U.S. market really fling open to the more than 50,000 "official" musicians in Cuba, U.S. consumers will be inundated not only with Cuban jazz and traditional musics, but also with timba brava and descarga. (The Cuban term for "jam session," descarga is dance music with jazz-influenced horn arrangements and extended solos.) Again, one only has to look to Canada for a preview of things to come. At this year's du Maurier International Jazz Festival Vancouver alone, Maraca y Otra Vision, Bunnett's group, Orquestra Aragon, Orishas, pianists Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Omar Sosa, and Buena Vista Social Club lute master Barbarito Torres all performed within the same week.
Yet when the doors do open, the U.S. market for Cuban music may well fracture into several smaller submarkets for folk, jazz, and dance music. Simultaneously, the major record labels will undoubtedly try to create a crossover superstar and to marginalize the independent labels that have been crucial to the preservation of Cuba's musical legacy. The combination of such polarizing trends may permanently corrupt what is precious and pristine about how Americans are currently discovering Cuban music--as a culture, instead of as a genre or, worse, a product.
It is this panoramic perspective of culture and history that has informed three essential CD box-set collections of Cuban music: Cuba I Am Time (four CDs, Blue Jackal); Cuadernos de la Habana (five CDs, Winter & Winter); and The Legendary Los Van Van: Thirty Years of Cuba's Greatest Dance Band (two CDs, Ashé).
Cuba I Am Time is an honors-level Cuban Music survey, collecting everything from Yoruba-influenced folkloric standards to classic són and groundbreaking jazz compositions. The far more ambitious, and ultimately satisfying, Cuadernos de la Habana can be likened to a latter-day Alan Lomax field recording expedition. German producer Stefan Winter's crews mined the crevices of Old and Central Havana and found diamonds: late-night solo ruminations by legendary pianist Frank Emilio Flynn at a noisy Miramar nightclub; the elegant cha-cha-chas of Orquestra Sublime at a cavernous dance hall; the sunny guajira (a rural song form) of Cuarteto Carenas at a house party.
The Legendary Los Van Van chronicles leader/composer Juan Formell's transformation from pop tunesmith (remove the obvious Latin elements, and Los Van Van's breakthrough 1969 hit, "Marilu," could pass as a B side for a single by the Association or the Left Banke) to a socially conscious groovemeister on a par with James Brown and the late Afro-pop great Fela Kuti. Formell has judiciously tinkered with the sound of Los Van Van over the years, adding trombones to a basic charanga instrumentation in the early 1980s and bringing in jazzier soloists in the 1990s. But the biggest change in Los Van Van's music since its formation in the midst of the revolutionary optimism of 1969 is Formell's lyrics. Since the legalization of Cuba's parallel dollar-based economy, Formell has been boldly turning out tunes like the 1993 "Un Socio" ("A Business Partner"), in which a street-savvy guy looking for a backer lists his experience in the black market with the caution: "Don't ask me how I did it / In this life, anything is valid." Tracks like this make The Legendary Los Van Van an essential cultural history document.
Regardless of how the future of Cuban music plays out in the States, collections like these are already expanding perceptions. And music once heard can't be unheard. Gloria Estefan and Ricky Ricardo no longer personify Cuban music for the U.S. audience; pretty soon not even Buena Vista Social Club will. ¤