1999 / Live Reviews / Music

Cuban Musicians Say Forget Me Not

Overlooked Cuban Musicians Release Award-Winning Album, Solo Records, Movie And Tour

“Out with the old and in with the new.”

buena-vista-social-club

Photo: Axiom Films

That phrase is only too easily abided by in the music business and perhaps, by the music-buying public. As keyboardist Al Kooper wisely noted in his autobiography, “Seniority is your enemy in the record business. They think you’re not cutting edge if you’ve been around longer than 20 minutes.”

And that is what makes the recent popular resurgence of veteran artists like Bob Dylan and Carlos Santana so magnificent. Long written off or accused of outgrowing their gifts, sometimes music’s senior citizens are relegated to the dustbin of history.

Another prime example is Buena Vista Social Club. Forgotten in their native Cuba, most of the members of the group had both achieved fame and faded from popular memory decades ago.

This year, younger artists like Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez gave Latin music a higher profile. But despite their age, the Buena Vista album (and its subsequent solo and collaborative records) have garnered Grammy nods and platinum sales. Members of the group are currently touring the U.S., bringing with them almost a century of Cuban music.

But Buena Vista’s success wasn’t specifically a reaction to the latest industry buzz. The timing was coincidence.

The album itself was recorded more than three years ago. Slide guitar great Ry Cooder had planned to record an album in Cuba, but when the chosen musicians failed to show up, he began enlisting local talent.

What Cooder uncovered, however, became what he insisted was the pinnacle of his career. It was something that “might just happen to you once in your lifetime.” And that compliment has plenty of competition. Cooder has played sideman to, among others, the Rolling Stones, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band and a young Taj Mahal.

What is so striking and magical about the Buena Vista album is the diversity of the various styles of Cuban music. It’s an unintentional cross-section of all the music of the island, forged and honed by these men (and one woman) years ago in various ensembles.

The diversity comes in part from more than a dozen musicians. Each musician has different roots and different approaches. While songwriting legend Compay Segundo or guitarist Eliades Ochoa are grounded in the country/folk sound known as son, singer Ibrahim Ferrer and pianist Ruben Gonzalez are closer to the balladeer or orchestra traditions. It is perhaps through the group’s common cultural experiences that the musicians were able to bridge the gaps.

Cooder is credited for the most part for shaping the album into a coherent body of songs. As he told Mojo magazine, “These people would not have been together normally and that’s what makes it work.”

Within the group, 90-year-old Segundo is honored like a living legend. A well-known songwriter and arranger, Segundo is still making music with his own solo group but was coaxed into offering up a new song, the slithering “Chan Chan,” to start off the album. Lead vocalist on that song and on several others is cowboy/guitarist Eliades Ochoa. Both men share a love of the guitar-oriented music that makes up the lion’s share of the album.

And despite his personal inclinations, Ferrer is just as comfortable singing on the son songs as he is singing in front of an orchestra.

For Cooder, finding the 72-year-old Ferrer was like discovering Nat “King” Cole. Ferrer’s soaring voice does share Cole’s cool, gentlemanly sound but with a majestic ring to it. Ferrer is a true crooner. What is surprising is that for most of his career in various bands, Ferrer was prevented from singing ballads, or bolero. When he was drafted in the sessions, he had retired from music and was shining shoes.

Eighty-year-old pianist Ruben Gonzalez also makes stellar appearances throughout the record. He is regarded as something of a national treasure. Like Ferrer, he is at home in the rhythms of son but is also adept at the jazz harmonies of the Cuban orchestras. He too had drifted away from music because of arthritis, but when the sessions began, he was usually the first to arrive and the last to leave, Cooder noted.

With the success of the first album, a half-dozen solo and collaborative albums followed under the Buena Vista umbrella. Albums by Segundo, Ochoa, Gonzalez and Ferrer (in addition to another ensemble effort that earned a Grammy nomination credited to the Afro-Cuba All-Stars) allowed each member to fully explore his music. It is also raised the Buena Vista album higher, further elaborated on the width and subtlety of that record.

The most successful solo album was Ferrer’s, with Cooder returning as producer. The album allowed Ferrer to stand out on his own, while his voice leapt from the son numbers to several Desi Arnaz-like arrangements.

And it was when Cooder returned to Cuba in 1998 that German filmmaker Wim Wenders tagged along. With most of the Buena Vista musicians making guest appearances, Wenders’ 100-minute documentary examined the musicians, their lives and their history. Wenders even followed when the entire group made its only two public performances in Amsterdam and at New York’s Carnegie Hall. (Wenders’ “Buena Vista Social Club” was released in the U.S. last June.)

Currently, a tour is in progress featuring several of the Buena Vista players. Though frequently billed as Buena Vista Social Club, the tour is in fact the Orquesta Ibrahim Ferrer and Ruben Gonzalez y su grupo. (This reviewer caught them at their recent Minneapolis show.)

And unlike what you’d expect, the orchestral side of the music dominates.

With Gonzalez opening, the show features a number of instrumentals (including an odd version of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” performed on trombone). But instead of being piano-driven, most of the selections show Gonzalez as the expert accompanist, weaving intricate rhythm into each song.

Ferrer’s set is a showcase for his voice, with his 12-piece band providing subtle backup (bassist Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez was the only other original Buena Vista player on tour besides Gonzalez, Ferrer and singer Omara Portuondo).

Ferrer doesn’t disappoint, as he snags several selections from both the Buena Vista album and his solo outing. His voice and mannerisms in front of an orchestra seem second nature.

The secret weapon of the tour, however, is singer Omara Portuondo. The lone female in the Buena Vista circle, her frequent appearances throughout Gonzalez’s and Ferrer’s sets provide a much-needed jolt of energy. Though she was often the only vocalist in Gonzalez’s band, her sly-sounding voice really shines when singing with Ferrer. The two established some chemistry on the album and their two voices blend beautifully and easily. Watching her onstage, it becomes evident why Wenders said he would like to work with her again for a movie role.

Perhaps the highlight of the night, however, was when Ferrer and Gonzalez united on stage to play the crowd favorite, “Dos Gardenias.” With Gonzalez adding subdued backup, Ferrer sang this love song, invoking the very best of the Sinatra/Bing Crosby tradition.

What occurred to me at the end of the concert, after several encores and bows from the musicians, was their patience and persistence. After so many years of being ignored or brushed off as too old, they are now being cheered for exploring the same music they did at the century’s beginning.

Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 1999 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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