Viva La Jazz

A Review of Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
Director: Wim Wenders


Most documentaries are boring. It’s a fact that somehow a real life incident or person doesn’t seem as interesting when shown as-is, rather than in widescreen format with Dolby Surround, a glamorous ensemble cast, elaborate realistic sets and lots of extra spice. However, there are always exceptions to the rule – gems like William Nessen's The Black Road (I actually had the fortune to meet him when he visited NID), Elle Flander's Zero Degrees Of Separation, Mahnaz Afzali's The Ladies’, and that greatest of all documentary musicals, Buena Vista Social Club.


The film traces the journey of American guitarist Ry Cooder and his percussionist son Joachim to Cuba in March 1998, in search of the forgotten musicians whose rhythms filled Havana nights in the years preceding World War II. These musicians were members of the Buena Vista Social Club, and used to perform regularly, with the club at its peak during the 1940s. The Cooders find these musicians living practically on the streets of Havana, almost forgotten, but very much alive as far as their spirit and extraordinary musical talent is concerned. Through the help of local musician Juan de Marcos González (who plays the guiro), who helps to regroup the members and coordinate their performances at the EGREM studios in Havana, the music from the old days is recreated. Needless to say, so is the magic.

The members include the honey-voiced son and bolero singer Ibrahim Ferrer (who also plays the conga, claves and bombo), singer Omara Portuondo (the only female member, who has worked with Nat King Cole), Compay Segundo (vocals and tres), legendary pianist Rubén González, bassist Orlando "Cachaito" López, trumpet player Manuel "Guajiro" Mirabal, percussionist Amadito Valdés and the younger members, laúd player Barbarito Torres, singers Manuel "Puntillita" Licea and Pío Leyva, and guitarist-singer Eliades Ochoa.

The film intersperses some of the band’s finest songs with interviews of the members speaking about their lives, along with footage of their live performances at Amsterdam in April and New York’s Carnegie Hall in July of that same year. It’s incredible hear Ferrer and Segundo sounding as robust as people half their age, and if there ever is such a thing as musical lightning, it’s ably demonstrated by nanogenarian González’s fingers flying over the piano keys, or by Torres playing the laúd behind his own back.. Tracks like Chan Chan” (the overwhelming favourite), “Dos Gardenias”, “El Cuarto De Tula” are just a few of the gems on the soundtrack. By turns bittersweet, sensuous and mischievous, it is as much an aural feast as it is visually.

I went to see Buena Vista Social Club because I expected to hear some mind-blowing Cuban jazz. Not only was I not disappointed, I left the theatre with the goosebumps still on my arms, long after the notes had faded into the recesses of my memory.

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