Brass in Pocket: The Buena Vista Social Club Was Just the Start for Cuba's Musical Capitalist Juan De Marcos Gonzalez, Finds Alice O'Keeffe
O'Keeffe, Alice, New Statesman (1996)
Juan de Marcos Gonzalez has the confident demeanour of a highly successful man. Casually turned out in a crisp blue tracksuit, he sends the barman at Havana's Riviera Hotel scurrying for the first beer of the afternoon with a brisk click of his fingers. "With a glass," he adds. "I'm bourgeois now." Gonzalez is joking, but he has certainly earned himself a very special status in Cuba. He has done more than perhaps any other artist to bring the country's traditional music out of the shadows, both at home and abroad. In the 1970s, with his first band, Sierra Maestra, he spearheaded a folk revival on the island. And in the 1990s, as musical director of the Buena Vista Social Club and the Afro-Cuban Allstars, he played a pivotal role in bringing Cuban culture to the attention of the world.
"I have never been economically ambitious, but I've always wanted to contribute something valuable to Cuba," he says. "I knew I could do that with traditional music." Buena Vista catapulted Gonzalez into the premier league, and also taught him some harsh lessons. For instance, he was not at all happy with Wim Wenders's documentary on the Buena Vista Social Club. "The film is fiction. It's like seeing a Julia Roberts film. It is directed exclusively at the hearts of people from the first world," he says.
There was also a personal slight. Ry Cooder, the American slide-guitar genius, film producer and close friend of Wenders, was shown as the driving force behind the group, appearing in almost every frame of the film. In fact, the original idea of using old musicians belonged to Gonzalez, who recruited them from his barrio and recorded the album with the British producer Nick Gold. People do not seem to realise, he says, that Wenders didn't begin filming until after the Buena Vista Social Club album had won a Grammy.
The insult was compounded by a huge financial dispute with Wenders, which Gonzalez refuses to discuss because he does not want to "stir the shit". He is, however, writing a book about the dodgy dealing and exploitation that formed the background to the Buena Vista story. "I never expected that from an artist," he says of Wenders. "Because artists aren't just capitalists. They should have artistic pride."
Having built his career on reviving the past, Gonzalez is now launching his own record label, DM Ahora! (De Marcos Now!), through which he aims to cultivate young musical talent. Cigar-toting pensioners will not be on offer, but all the genres of Cuban music will be represented, from Afro-Cuban to jazz and even classical. …