Our Man in Havana
Ry Cooder gets down in Cuba.
By Ed Hazell
JANUARY 12, 1998: Guitarist Ry Cooder knows a thing or two about cross-cultural collaborations. Beginning with his earliest work back in the '60s, when he was a session player on Captain Beefheart's debut album and a guest on the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman," Cooder, one of the foremost blues players in rock of his generation, has been broadening his cultural horizons. In the '70s he worked with Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence, Tex-Mex accordionist Flaco Jimenez, and Hawaiian slack-key guitarist Gabby Pahunui. More recently, he recorded an album with the Indian classical musician V.M. Bhatt. Another album, with the Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré, Talking Timbuktu (Hannibal/Rykodisc), was a world-music hit, remaining on Billboard's charts for more than 25 weeks. So when a musician with global-music credentials like Cooder's says that making Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit/Nonesuch) was the "peak experience of my life," it's a good bet something extraordinary is afoot.
Indeed it is. Buena Vista Social Club is a funky gem of an album. Recorded in Havana during an intense three-week period that also produced two other World Circuit releases, A Toda Cuba Le Gusta and Introducing Rubén González, the album gathers some of the greatest names in the history of Cuban popular music to run down some traditional hits, as well as some intriguing rarities. Drawing on essentially the same pool of musicians, the three discs cover the entire history of Cuban music in this century, encompassing son, danzón, guaguanco, cha-cha-cha and more obscure dance forms that have sprung up from the island's fecund musical soil. The Rubén González date -- the debut recording as a leader by an septuagenarian keyboardist who is one of the more important figures in Cuban music of the past 50 years -- is a genuine revelation.
For decades, Cuba was a ever-present, if shadowy, influence on American music. When early jazz great Jelly Roll Morton spoke of "the Spanish tinge" in New Orleans jazz, he meant the music of Cuba -- the habanera and the danzón. And Cuban exiles in the states like Mario Bauzá and Machito sparked the mambo craze of the 1950s, making New York night spots like the Palladium the hottest joints in town. Since Castro seized power, the US blockade in place since 1961 has pretty much choked off the flow of music from the island. Free from the cultural and commercial pressures that American pop can impose, the music of Cuba has flourished and retained its own identity.
Cooder says that recording in Havana was an experience unlike any other in his long experience of making albums all over the world. "Every day that you spend in Havana is a tremendous cathartic experience" he explains over the phone from California. "Havana is like a village -- everybody knows everybody and everybody knows the music. It's a very auspicious place to do music."
Cooder thinks the special relationship between Cuban musicians and their audience is one reason the music is so powerful. "We're raised and grow up here [in the US] on commercialism, which is the star system. It fragments everything and everybody, and it eventually destroys people. In Cuba, there is no media to do that to people. There's no structure to take people away from themselves and their community. So the audience and the musician are intimately related in a funny way, no one is detached or removed or set aside. It's a very gratifying thing to discover.
"That's the thing about Cuba -- it's very, very funky. The people are funky. I mean, for instance, we were listening to a playback and I'm trying to make sure everything is okay, while the guy who's brought spare parts in from Mexico City is dancing with [singer] Eliades Ochoa's wife. You see things like that all the time. That's the vibe, that's the feeling. It's music to engage yourself in. That's all. It's just about dancing and getting along and having fun."
The original plan for the sessions had been to get West African musicians together with the Cubans in an exchange between different cultures of the African diaspora. But visa problems kept the Africans from making the date, so World Circuit producer Nick Gold and Cooder made the best of the situation, rounding up whoever was available. Cooder relaxed when they found 89-year-old sonero Compay Segundo. "Compay is the best of those who are still around," he points out, "and in my experience, in the rare times when you run into such a person, you can pretty much say, okay, we can start here. He's the oldest, the wisest, he knows all the songs, he sees into the hidden innards of this stuff. After that, the rest is just luck or good vibes."
Segundo sings and plays guitar with an effortless assurance and authority; he's been at it since World War I. Age may have roughened his voice, but it has not dimmed his vitality or impact. And though he sings primarily in duet, it's a tribute to his artistry and insight that he can be in synch with such a variety of singers. His work with Ochoa on the haunting, deliciously relaxed "Chan Chan" is especially notable. And his vivid performance of "La Bayamesa," a 19th-century piece that predates the son form itself, is so in touch with the emotional core of the song, the beating heart of the tradition, that it seems freshly minted.
Segundo provided guidance in the selection of the repertoire, fishing out a couple of rare songs that bear the distinct mark of American music of the '30s. "I had never heard anything like it," Cooder admits. "Compay says that 'Orgullecida' was written by a friend of his who was hooked on American movies. Of course, they don't syncopate the way the black music does in America, they don't play the backbeat, they don't swing that way. So it was a little tricky to record because it was esoteric even for the guys in the room. I asked Compay is there any more stuff like this and he said no, not in Cuba. It was a rare find."
On several tracks, Segundo's wily, virile presence contrasts with the arresting voice of Ibrahim Ferrer, whose sensuous lilt is undimmed at age 70. On the first day of recording, the sessions' Cuban musical director, Juan de Marcos González, decided they needed a bolero singer, so he disappeared for several hours, returning with Ferrer in tow. "To me, that vocal quality he has -- or the quality he has as a human -- is very spellbinding, very strange, like a jungle animal, like a cougar or something," says Cooder. "You used to see this in old blues players or old Hawaiians. It's very deep, almost spooky, though he's the sweetest guy in the world."
Although the singing and the instrumental solos (especially trumpeter Guajiro Mirabal's elegantly passionate statements) all deserve to be singled out, Cuban music is first and foremost an ensemble music. And the special appeal of these albums lies in the way the percussion, bass, and guitars accommodate one another in the complex yet transparent weave of Cuba's ineffably sensuous music. The various song forms are cleanly, even rigidly, defined, but the musicians still find room for individual expression. They had never played together as a group before, yet they created a group sound unique to the occasion, and the albums never sound tentative or suffer from an anonymous pick-up quality.
Cooder joins in throughout Buena Vista and on "Alto Songo" from A Toda Cuba Le Gusta, finding ways to work his country blues slide guitar into a Cuban setting. "You have to be able to play with them, because if you can't . . . well, you best be on your way. They all liked the bottle neck. That's what pulled Compay's coat, and he said, oh, Hawaii! They don't know commercial pop music. Certainly you could find lots of young Cubans who do, but these old-timers, man, they just do what they do. I think they thought we were good-hearted folks who weren't going to take the music and run and pull a carpetbagger routine on them."
Pianist Rubán González played with such fire and panache that Gold and Cooder quickly decided he deserved a session to himself. In the days remaining before they left, they gave the 77-year-old González free rein to make his first album under his own name. Better late than never. "He's a very, very seminal player," Cooder says of the man he calls the greatest piano soloist he has ever heard. "They credit him with being one of the three main creators of the modern style [along with Peruchín and Lilí Martínez]."
González played with both Arsenio Rodríguez, the blind singer and cuatro player whose '50s conjunto laid the foundation for salsa, and with Enrique Jorrín, the revered flutist/composer who invented the cha-cha-cha. At the time of these sessions González had retired, though he occasionally visited a neighborhood social club to astonish the waiters and patrons with his virtuosity. He was so eager to play that he showed up before the studio doors were unlocked in the morning, and music simply poured from him all day long.
Throughout Introducing Rubén González, González plays the piano like a drum. His solos on "Mandinga," "Almendra" and "Tumbao" reveal how each phrase moves like a drum pattern. He fits simple, memorable melodies to the rhythmic shapes and fleshes them out with limpid, beautiful harmonies. The results are lush, witty, sophisticated, and utterly unpretentious.
González was playing in social clubs because he was too poor to replace his piano, which fell apart several years ago. Many of the musicians on these sessions lead similarly humble lives. "You're talking about people who don't own very much of anything," Cooder says. "But the more you hang out and the more you ask questions, and they come to know you, they'll tell you such things. They'll show you things that are incredible. Compay had handwritten manuscripts from Matamoros's own hand in his house. It's astonishing. I began to realize that this was one of the ways they had preserved their own. They have very little to hang on to. You see people playing really busted-up instruments. But you know, they still sound real good. They totally transcend their physical limitations and they make the music happen, which proves it's not about having the most up-to-date equipment or having the most possessions."
Cooder's trip to Cuba is a tantalizing example of the fertile cross-cultural
musical exchanges that could take place if US-Cuba relations were more open.
Setting aside divisive politics, these men and women came together as people
and as artists. As the restrictions loosen -- and they inevitably will -- let's
hope that others have the wisdom to follow their example.
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