Movies in Quarantine: Buena Vista Social Club

Image: Elyeser Szturm

By Walnice Nogueira Galvão*

Commentary on the film by Win Wenders that features hitherto inactive and “forgotten” Cuban musicians

Wim Wenders' beautiful 1999 documentary about Cuban musicians, Buena Vista Social Club, results from the rescue carried out by Ry Cooder, American guitarist author of the soundtrack of Paris,Texas, when discovering that these professionals survived in obscurity after the extinction of gambling and casinos, their primary job market.

Old, poor and black, all in their eighties, make a sound of commanding respect. As if that weren't enough, we became aware of each other thanks to the film that they are great artists and great personalities, which Wim Wenders was able to capture so well; it wasn't for him also being an unusual filmmaker, in size bigger than the gauge.

One of the good things about the film is witnessing their joy at playing and singing again. Among the highlights, the pianist Rubén González, who had not owned a piano for ten years, the singer Ibrahim Ferrer and the guitarist, also a singer, Compay Segundo, name de guerre of Francisco Repilado, so nicknamed because he was the second voice in the duo The Compadres. True living memory of are, had a trajectory similar to that of the great American jazz singer Alberta Hunter, who was discovered late at the age of seventy, after a lifetime working as a nurse in a hospital.

Remember Cartola, also revealed later on, car washer in Ipanema that he was. The Cuban, when the music market shrank or disappeared, put down his guitar and went to work for seventeen years as a cigar roller until he retired. Even though he was over ninety years old, while Compay Segundo lived he returned to singing in the studio and giving shows. A year before the film, to the delight of fans, he recorded a double CD in Spain that bears his name. And in 1996, the filming and collective preparation of a homonymous CD began, which would be awarded the prestigious Grammy Award in the United States.

Ry Cooder – a musician thing – had received a tape and made a commitment to go and record Cuban and African musicians in Havana. Those from Africa never appeared, held back in Europe. He, in Cuba, was summoning those he could find, with messages from mouth to mouth, and that's how these monsters appeared almost by chance. The first CD was then recorded. The name of Buena Vista Social Club it was invented there, at the time, to end up baptizing the CDs, the shows and the film.

The first CD broke the world: they played shows in Amsterdam and other places before Carnegie Hall; all this before the movie. They really liked to “enjoy a little before you die”, as they say. They are shown on a moving tour of downtown New York, finding everything beautiful. In the concert at Carnegie Hall, which constitutes the apotheosis of the film and ends with the Cubans unfurling their flag, we see the splendid singer Omara Portuondo, all in black and a yellow turban, singing Perhaps Perhaps Perhaps. And Ibrahim Ferrer, very elegant in a red blazer, without abandoning his usual cap. The theater was packed, the naughty ones loving it and doing all kinds of tricks to seduce the audience, like, for example, playing the guitar backwards.

Ry Cooder's son, also in the film, is a percussionist. He declares that Cuba is a paradise for his specialty, and even the musicians of other instruments make the most original percussions, like Cachaíto, the bassist who plays by ear and accompanies the pianist at every note without having to listen first.

The grace with which these veterans act is admirable, Compay Segundo highlighting here: the splendid body language; the setting up of a stage persona endowed with charisma and her own speech; character composition with choice of clothing, hat or cap at an impertinent angle, cigar between fingers; the hairstyle, eccentric or connoting a very particular sense of elegance, not at all conformist. Also noteworthy is the singular bonhomie and a touch of sardonic stoicism in the face of the mishaps of luck, on the part of those who did not ask for asylum and continued to live in their country despite the hardship.

The recognition resulted in international acclaim, triggered by recitals in niches in the field such as Amsterdam and Carnegie Hall, from there spreading throughout the world. As proof, several CDs and some books have already been released.

It makes you think that a film like this has never been made in Brazil, land of superb musicians, nothing less than the Cubans, and incomparable filmmakers. Until recently, artists with charismatic profiles such as Pixinguinha, Nelson Cavaquinho, Cartola, Clementina de Jesus, Moreira da Silva, Carlos Cachaça, just to mention the most recent, were still alive. The Brazilian fan daydreams when he wonders if someone like Glauber Rocha had focused his camera on such a suit.

The film revisits the sound mania that reigns on the island, reminding our country in this. It is something that has repercussions in literature, as, for example, in the work of Cabrera Infante. in the novel Three sad tigers (Seix Barral), the section with the subtitle “Ella cantaba boleros” talks about an unforgettable fat and black singer, whose performance trapped listeners with the slime of unconfessable pain. The atmosphere of the night was something you could almost take in your hand, such was the strength of the reconstruction.

In search of such artists and such an environment, which only subsist in memory, in later times it was possible to come across traces in the only surviving cabaret, the Tropicana, where in the midst of the Hollywood show there was a five-minute vignette in which ex machina a piston musician – extraordinary –, playing boleros. And that, it seems, more or less connoted a graft from the past, worshiped as if it were its purified icon of evils. No more than that.

Imagine the astonishment of fans, then, when they saw the film and found that it was all there, just obliterated in a fold of history.

Cabrera Infante's ear had on more than one occasion been sensitive to music. Years after the first, when writing the novel Havana for a deceased infant (Companhia das Letras), very different from Three sad tigers, but with a punning title in the tradition of that one – an obvious play on words with Ravel’s composition –, I would come back to the subject.

A music lover's book, it expands its forays into the erudite sector, lingering less on the popular one. But it does mark the presence of many of these artists in Havana life, including the renowned singer and bandleader like the sonero mayor, Beny Moré, nicknamed “Bárbaro”. Or else the outstanding pianist and singer, a sort of – if not sacrilegious – Latin Louis Armstrong: Bola de Nieve (Ball by analogy and by Nieve by antonymy), fat, black, with a shaved head and homosexual.

The true vogue that the film spread throughout the first world, as it sometimes happens with hits artificially constructed, this time by chance presents us with excellent results. It is not just the canonical CD, with the same title as the film, that is available to interested parties: several others have already been recorded, either new with the film's team or exclusive with each of the main actors – solo discs respectively by Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González, Omara Portuondo etc. Or else, anthologies of excellent records from the past are reissued, in which good samples can be found, among others, of the voice of the great Beny Moré.

For us Cuban music, with its strong African accent, never sounded, contrary to what it sounds to first world ears, the world music. This label, as is known, applies to everything that is not Anglo-American music, therefore covering all of ours, which certainly gives us chills. As for the island's native sound, we instantly welcomed it and felt at home with it; not to mention the inimitable swing.

Brazilians were already familiar, through films and records, with measures of this origin that became popular here, such as the rumba, the conga, the mambo, the chachacha, etc. With the exception of the film by Wim Wenders and its by-products, salsa, the most widespread rhythm in recent years and which, if I'm not mistaken, was created in New York by Hispanic Americans who played the consist of Cuban, from which he descends very closely. Not forgetting the singer Celia Cruz, the band of the Puerto Rican Tito Puente would be its greatest exponent for almost half a century.

An additional benefit, in addition to the film and the discs, is that, thanks to the mercantile wave, books are produced on the subject, some of them bringing CDs that have been inserted and prepared with care, in order to illustrate what their pages study. Although they don't go beyond commercial disclosure tapes, they are well done and work as an introduction, doing service to the amateur yearning for more light.

I have in my hands two of them, which appeared in France, with almost the same title, only distinguished by the article. Cuban music (1998), by Maya Roy, edited by the Cité de la Musique and Actes Sud, is part of a collection that already has numerous titles by world music, and that the collection to which they belong, World music, is translation. It includes everything from Arab-Andalusian chords to North American gospel, evidently black, or even the Jewish liturgy, passing through Java, Hungary and Portugal. As you can see, it seems that none of this is European or white…

the other is Les musiques cubaines (1999), by François-Xavier Gómez. Unpretentious, it offers a minor graphic whim on poor quality paper, but on the other hand it brings a complete chronology, a directed bibliography and even a discography, adding website indications for those interested. an edition Librio, still without much brand name, has, however, distribution by Flammarion.

Sometimes, in short, it may happen that amidst the denim, some nuggets shine, to the delight of the fan – in spite of the pattern that signals one more among the many marketing ploys that plague us –, as in this case.

*Walnice Nogueira Galvão Professor Emeritus at the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences at USP.


  • Buena Vista Social Club (Cuba / Germany, 1999)
  • Directed by: Wim Wenders
  • Cast: Ry Cooder, Joachin Cooder, Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González, Omara Portuondo.
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