Ry Cooder's Cuban club paradise

By Mark Bautz
Updated July 31, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Ry Cooder played guitar with the Stones and he also rediscovered Woody Guthrie’s music years before Billy Bragg and Wilco (the dust bowl folkie’s newest popularizers) had even reached puberty. But little in the long career of the ever-eclectic Cooder has generated as much excitement in the press and among fans as his latest musical reclamation project: Buena Vista Social Club, an ensemble of nearly two dozen virtuosic Cuban performers who range in age from 15 to 91.

Two years ago, Cooder, now 51, headed to Havana to record an album of Latin classics written prior to the 1959 Communist revolution. He found that many of the island’s best musicians of that period were deceased, in poor health, or retired. Ruben Gonzalez, 79, whom Cooder calls “the greatest piano soloist I have ever heard,” suffered from arthritis and had quit playing; vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, 71, was shining shoes for a living.

“These were world-famous Cuban stars from the ’40s and ’50s, and they had been forgotten even in their own country,” says Buena Vista band member Juan de Marcos Gonzalez. Adds Cooder: “There’s a Latin expression—’Nothing rarer than a green dog.’ Well, that’s what these musicians are, green dogs: They are the last living masters of their style of music.”

The U.S.-Cuban collaboration (Cooder joined in on guitar and his son, Joachim, 19, played drums) resulted in the album Buena Vista Social Club (World Circuit/Nonesuch). Recorded in Havana and released last September, the disc has turned into a surprise hit, winning a Grammy and selling more than 750,000 copies worldwide. To celebrate their success, 22 members of Buena Vista Social Club assembled at Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall on July 1 for a one-time-only North American concert that sold out in three days and drew such celebs as Mike Nichols and Jim Jarmusch.

While prohibitive costs make an American tour impossible, fans should be able to catch the act this fall, thanks to a documentary being produced by German director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire). Wenders, who worked with Cooder on the soundtrack to his Paris, Texas (1984), has filmed more than 80 hours of the group in Havana, Amsterdam, and New York. “I saw people in my crew dance whom I’ve never seen dance before,” says Wenders, 52. “They’re stiff, they’re Germans—but the music is so alive and spontaneous it completely took them over.”

Buena Vista Social Club

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