Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Buena Vista Social Club

I accidentally picked up the DVD Buena Vista Social Club (1999) in the library the other day and was left in awe after watching it. Buena Vista Social Club was the club in Havana where a group of Cuban musicians gathered to play during the 1940s. American guitarist Ry Cooder learned about those long-forgotten brilliant musicians and brought them together almost half a century after the club was closed. To my surprise, the director was Wim Wenders, who was persuaded by his friend Ry Cooder to make this documentary. The film is a combination of concert footages, interviews with each musician, and the shots of streetscape and daily life in Havana.

Already a big fan of Latin jazz, this documentary opened up a whole new horizon of traditional Cuban music in front of me: I got to know quite a few talented musicians whose names I’d never heard of, and learned about the personal side of my favorite musicians whom I only knew from CDs. While watching them in real life and hearing them telling their personal stories, I couldn’t help falling in love with the Rubén González’s elegance, Compay Segundo’s sense of humor, Ibrahim Ferrer’s sincerity….

One unforgettable scene leads the viewer through the empty interior of an old and beautiful colonial building, and then the camera moves towards Rubén González who is playing the piano and starts circling him slowly. Both the decaying interior and the wrinkled face of González are telling the story of aging, yet the music born out of his fingers remains youthful and passionate.

Despite all the political obstacles between US and Cuba, the musicians finally traveled to New York and performed at Carnegie Hall in 1998. The audience were simply overwhelmed by their passionate music and the musicians were left in tears. It was the final legendary show of Buena Vista Social Club considering some the musicians were in their nineties at the time. Today all the prominent musicians have already passed away, but their music never dies and continues to reach the hearts of people all around the world.

Regarding the filmmaking, I’m a bit disappointed with the way Wim Wenders handles the materials. I find the following two things quite disturbing: one is the excessive appearance of Ry Cooder and his son throughout the film. I understand Ry Cooder is a good friend of Wim and the organizer of the club’s reunion, but it makes no sense to give him more spotlight than any of the musician in the film; the other is the musicians’ reactions on touring New York City. They kept remarking on how beautiful the city is, which sounded so corny and destroyed the dignity of the musicians.

With Obama’s new policy, traveling to Cuba will no longer be a mission impossible for US residents in the near future. I can’t wait for the day to walk down the streets of Havana seeking the traces of Buena Vista Social Club, soaked in the enchanting traditional music. That’s another big motivation for my Spanish learning!

Here's the link for Buena Vista Social Club's Chan Chan (1998). I almost cry everytime I watch it -