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 Ruben Gonzalez, 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 son rap fusion of the Gen X musicians of Orishas (son 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. …