He has played with the Rolling Stones, John Lee Hooker and Neil Young, won six Grammys and been voted the eighth best guitarist in history by Rolling Stone magazine, but perhaps the high point of Ry Cooder’s career came in 1996 in a wood-paneled studio in Havana. The Californian had been invited to Cuba by the British producer Nick Gold and introduced to some local music stars, many of them in their seventies and eighties, including the guitarist Compay Segundo, the pianist Rubén González and the feather-voiced singer Ibrahim Ferrer.
Like a crack team of superannuated superheroes, many of the newly formed Buena Vista Social Club had never worked together before. They had certainly never worked with Cooder. And yet those eight days of sessions created a landmark in Latin music. A snake-hipped revival of traditional son, trova and filin styles, the band’s eponymous debut album, which Cooder produced and played slide guitar on, went platinum in the US and the UK, selling an estimated 12 million copies worldwide and winning a Grammy.
Tracks such as “Chan Chan,” apparently inspired by a woman’s jiggling bosom, became fixtures at dinner parties in London and New York. The group played huge sold-out shows around the globe and in 1999 were featured in an Oscar-nominated documentary by Wim Wenders. To mark its 25th anniversary, the album is being reissued with previously unreleased tracks, including the weightlessly gorgeous “Vicenta.”
What Cooder, 74, remembers most is the energy. “They were always plugged in,” he says on the phone from his home in Southern California. “Regardless of their age, they were so enthusiastic, 24 hours a day. It’s like fantasyland. You can say, ‘Hey, guys, what would you like to sing? What would you like to play? What’s the tune?’ Even though they’d been marginalized by the Castro regime and sort of set out to grass, they were vigorous, you know? It was like one of those old cars those guys drive down there — you just start it up.”
Tracks such as “Chan Chan,” apparently inspired by a woman’s jiggling bosom, became fixtures at dinner parties in London and New York.
Individually many of the musicians were world-class — Cooder says that the double-bassist Cachaíto López was “the most inventive and versatile player I think I’ve ever met”. Yet he was struck by their lack of ego. “It’s not like they’re a bunch of all-star soloists.” That wasn’t because they lived in a Communist system, he insists. “These people are all pre-Communist, pre-revolutionary, so it hadn’t colored their outlook.” Segundo, who was almost 90 at the time, told Cooder in his archaic, courtly Spanish that he had lived through three revolutions and five dictators.
“And he laughed about that,” Cooder says. “You’re not supposed to ever talk politics down there, it’s taboo, but I asked him, because I knew he wouldn’t mind, ‘How do you like the government?’ And he says, ‘Oh, the new man?’ [meaning Fidel Castro, who had then been in power for almost 40 years]. He says, ‘It’s a good thing. I can go to a doctor for free any time I want.’ During the other regimes the apartheid meant he couldn’t get medical care, being a darker skinned guy.”
Cooder says that the success of the group was a “double-edged sword” for Ferrer, who had previously worked shining shoes and selling lottery tickets. “He was a very modest, quiet, self-effacing guy, and he became a world star overnight,” Cooder says. “There’s just no mechanism for stardom in Cuba. They don’t have a recording industry. He’d been a nightclub performer and all of a sudden he was center stage with this great big band and the audience was going absolutely batshit.”
Ferrer would walk onstage at Carnegie Hall in New York and get a standing ovation. Not everybody was so ecstatic. Ferrer bought some Chinese TV sets and delivered them to his relatives in Cuba. “They didn’t like ’em. They said they weren’t big enough. These people resented him,” Cooder says.
Wenders’s film also had its drawbacks. “I don’t care if it’s pygmy nose flute players up in the trees some place in Asia, if you point a camera at somebody it won’t be very long before they start wearing their baseball caps backwards and giving each other backrubs. And that’s exactly what happened,” Cooder says. “But I will say that it brought focus and intensity. Wim saw that Compay was a character, like somebody who had been written into the script. And Compay was very good at being that character. We likened some of them to the Marx Brothers — they had some of that humorous energy. Their reaction to being in New York City was awesome because it was real.”
Some balk at the idea of “white saviors” such as Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel and Damon Albarn “discovering” artists from Africa, Asia and Latin America. The crotchety Cooder is unsurprisingly contemptuous of that view. “Everybody’s got an ax to grind,” he says. “I can tell you this incredible story about Nick Gold going around Havana with suitcases full of money, trying to pay the writers who had written the songs. That’s a story that none of these jackals and hyenas and shrieking loudmouths would know anything about.”
He points out that the project gave work to Cuban musicians and educated Westerners who were “totally unaware that any such thing existed and found that it was beautiful”. It also offered an image of Cuba that contrasted with “the propaganda that we were getting from the [US] government about the evils of the Castro regime. I remember people saying to me, ‘I had no idea that Cubans were such nice people.’ ”
It cut both ways. Segundo was so taken by Cooder that “he wanted me to live there with him and to work together as a duo. You know, ‘This is how I want to live out my days.’ That was an amazing thing to be asked.”
A permanent move wasn’t possible thanks to American law, although on his last day in office President Clinton granted an exemption to the embargo rules, allowing Cooder to make more records in Cuba. “It was very kind of him and I have a copy of that piece of paper with his signature,” Cooder says. Since then progress has been mixed. “[Bill] Clinton did things through the State Department to encourage exchange. Under [Barack] Obama, it didn’t really get moving because he had other priorities. He certainly wasn’t interested in Cuban music — he’s a Bruce Springsteen fan. And then after Obama you got Mr Big Stuff in there. And they just wrecked everything.” Cooder hasn’t been back since 2000.
Segundo died in 2003, González the same year and Ferrer in 2005. “Once a guy like Compay dies, they take so much knowledge with them that can never be regained,” Cooder says. Which is why he is so thankful for 1996 and the chance to “step back in time, where the code and the musical culture is so intact”. Cooder was fined $25,000 for breaking the Trading with the Enemy Act to record the album, but it must have been worth it. “Of course it was worth it,” he says. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It could never happen again.”
Ed Potton writes about film, music, and the arts