Buena Vista Social Club and Calle 54

This past weekend I watched the Buena Vista Social Club movie. I had never seen it before for no good reason. I loved the album when it first came out, had it on repeat(n) for months. The Amazon reviews for Buena Vista also referred to Calle 54, a film about Afro-Cuban jazz directed by Spanish directory Fernando Prueba (La Belle Epoque), who is a big fan of Latin jazz. Many of the Amazon reviewers liked Calle 54 better. I thought that judgement was unfair – they were quite different films.

In Buena Vista, director Wim Wenders shows the shabby beauty of late-90s Havana, and the joy and skill of the musicians’ performing and interacting. The movie cuts among travelogue scenes; stories of the musicians in their 70s-90s who were stars in the pre-revolutionary “son” style, returning from obscure retirement, and snippets of music footage. The highlight of the film is a blazing performance of ”El Cuarto de Tula” led by singer Ibrahim Ferrer.

The story telling is implicit and simple on the surface. On the one hand, translating into words cheapens the effect (triumph of the human spirit, universal language, ageless zest for life). On the other hand, the musicians are portrayed as characters in a fable. It’s the way they are interviewed and tell their stories, “I was born in poverty, in a mountain town.” It’s in the way their material and social circumstances are portrayed – jazz pianist Ruben Gonzalez no longer owns a piano and plays at a gym for competitive gymnastics hopefuls. Singer Ibrahim Ferrer continues the folk spiritual tradition as he gives daily librations of rum to his santeria altar; the image is a carving given to him by his mother. A PBS “making of” essay has an interesting perspective about the fable-like quality of the musicians’ stories – as entertainers and performers of folk-derived popular music, they contributed to the mythical flavor of their own stories.

The language and class barriers make a difference. You can see it in the way the musicians talk about Ry Cooder. Ferrer is surprised that a song he tossed off as a warmup was recorded and used on the album – “Ry Cooder liked it.” Throughout his career, Ry Cooder has searched for great music as a student and seeker, and collaborated with musicians from a variety of traditions in various parts of the world. He endured a lot of hassle from the US government in making this film, and tries pretty hard to stay in the background in Buena Vista, instead of taking center stage, white-guy-hero style. Part of the reason the Buena Vista album is great is Ry Cooder’s musical sensibility. Either I am a philistine vulnerable to his accessible cross-cultural raidings, or Ry Cooder has a great ear for affecting music, perfect songs, and clear, unsentimental production. I’m not going to dismiss the movie on political correctness grounds. Still, the economic and political situation shows in the relationships; Cooder is obviously the person giving the Cuban musicians the opportunity to play again and to travel.

The movie has very little overt politics (at the end of the movie, it shows revolutionary slogans on the walls, which have clearly failed to deliver). This is a strength and a weakness; you know that some combination of US and Cuban government activity has contributed to the musicians’ hardships, but you don’t know what or how. The portrayal of Havana has a faded romanticism; which, to be fair, isn’t distinctively colonialist on Wim Wenders’ part, he applies his romantic view of landscape equally to European cities viewed from the eyes of strangers (Wings of Desire) and dusty, declining American rural towns (Paris, Texas).

Unlike Buena Vista Social Club, which highlights the music but places the characters, landscape and story ahead of the music, Calle 54 shows complete, extended musical performances. This makes it less of a filmic work of art, but allows viewers and listeners to get more of the music and the musicians.

Calle 54 doesn’t have the same language and class barriers that affect Buena Vista Social Club, and represents musicians in a different set of circumstances. Calle 54 highlights a set of musicians active in Latin/Afro-Cuban jazz — the flavors of carribbean-jazz fusion that evolved along with early jazz, flowered in new york in the 40s and 50s, in the 70s alongside the salsa craze, and continues until today. Most of the musicians in Calle 54 had continuous careers, with ups and downs. Gato Barbieri had retired for apparently mostly personal reasons, but had already returned to performing by the time the film was being made.

Prueba is from Spain; the film is in Spanish with subtitles. He interviews the musicians, who, in snippets in the movie, and especially in an excellent DVD add-on, talk about their careers and the history of the music they play. In separate interviews, the musicians share similar answers, about the African traditions and rhythms that are the foundation of the music, and the bidirectional networks of collaboration among US and Carribbean musicians that formed this fusion.

I love the stories of the interactions among the musicians and traditions – how the different African traditions contributed to Cuban music – how New Orleans musicians would come to Cuba, march in the parks during the day, and play in the clubs at night – how Dizzy Gillespie sought out Cuban musicians to forge the style, and much later gave a phone call to the young starstruck Jerry Gonzalez to fill in for a missing percussionist. Gonzalez later took the lessons to found his own Fort Apache Band. Wherever one looks, cultural collaborations are always (always) more inter-related and weirder than romantic myths.

One of the artistic tensions shown in the film is between the musicians desire to play popular dance music, and more musically challenging jazz. Big band leader Arturo O’Farrill says that he was motivated to write music by the desire to add compositional interest to the simpler structures of Cuban popular dance music; Paquito D’Rivera talks about the tension in Irakere between making hits like Bacalao con Pan and jazzier, more complex pieces. Another of the tensions is in the musicians efforts to combine traditions with integrity and interest; Prueba talks about attempts to combine flamenco and jazz with varying success.

I am no expert or connoisseur; and have no special technical or cultural background, I just listen, but to my ears the tensions result in plenty of interesting and lively music for further listening. My favorite moments were the piano duet between formerly estranged father and son, Bebo and Chucho Valdes; the Paquito d’Rivera band, the Fort Apache band. Gato Barbieri’s tone just kills but his band wasn’t that interesting to me. Eliane Elias’ piano doesn’t do much for me. I can’t tell if it’s her playing, my taste, or if my ears have been ruined by film scores and hotel lobbies.

Like Buena Vista, calle 54 is mostly apolitical on the surface. The part that seems to me like visible social commentary is the interviews of the Gonzalez brothers of the Fort Apache band, named after the rough Bronx neighborhood they grew up in. The myth in American media is that the neighborhood was an irredeemable wilderness; the reality was more complex, with lively culture, poverty, and social problems co-existing; in the DVD add-on, Andy Gonzalez tells the story of an attempted mugging at a subway station coming home from a gig, by some junkies who were after his bass, the junkies were chased off by the sight of a cop car. His brother tells a story about leading a pack of young teenagers sneaking into a local amusement park to hear a jazz band play.

in summary, Buena Vista Social Club is more of a fable, and Calle 54 is more of a music film. In part because of the film-making, and in part because of circumstance, in Buena Vista the story is largely about the musicians, and in Calle 54 the story is largely told by them. I liked and recommend watching them both, and then raiding the discographies if you haven’t already been big fans.

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