‘Buena Vista Social Club’ is an Encounter at the End of “World Music”

The classic 1999 music doc by Wim Wenders gets a retrospective review from Landon Palmer.

Buena Vista Social Club
Criterion Collection

Wim WendersBuena Vista Social Club, the beloved music documentary about a late-90s revival of midcentury Cuban son music, was a byproduct of collaboration, fortuitous timing and sheer coincidence. Wenders first sought record producer and guitar player Ry Cooder as a creative counterpart for his 1982 U.S. debut Hammett. But when producers balked at the director’s request to have a musician best known for slide guitar compose the score for a noir biopic, Wenders postponed their collaboration until Paris, Texas and found that Cooder’s signature slide guitar made for a fitting counterpart to Wenders’s southwest dreamscape. When the two collaborated again for The End of Violence 12 years later, Cooder shared with the director a tape of a project he was in the process of releasing: a compendium of pre-revolutionary Cuban music named after a popular 1940s Havana dance club that would be met with enormous critical and commercial success upon its 1997 release. When Cooder phoned Wenders about his return to Cuba to record a follow-up, the director had only a few days to assemble a small crew and film the process.

Much of this context is absent from Wenders’s film until its closing moments, when Cooder and his son, Joachim, narrate their role in this project. Until then, Buena Vista Social Club is largely an account of Wenders’s encounter with these musicians within Havana. Equipped with a Steadicam alongside nascent professional and consumer digital video equipment, Wenders’s camera glides amongst the aging but lively musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club, circling these subjects as a group while they sing in the recording studio and individually as they roam the narrow streets of Havana. This approach is hardly observational and embraces an evocative mix of decisive slice-of-life staging and the inherent spontaneity of a dense, dynamic city. For example, vocalist Omara Portuondo strolls outside, reciting a traditional song and compelling strangers to join in, which Wenders then seamlessly cuts to Portuondo performing that same song onstage at a full concert in Amsterdam. Not only a testament to Portuondo’s incredible talent, this cut indicates the unique work of Cooder’s project: that is, to transport ostensibly vernacular music to a global stage.

In this way, Cooder’s project is exemplary of the late-20th century genre known as “world music” — that is, in Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s words, the “curious genre-cum-marketing tag invented in the ‘80s to peddle the folk cultures of Earth’s poorer nations to record buyers in its richer ones.” World music, quite rightly, attracted criticism towards the end of its marketing cycle. Four months after Buena Vista Social Club hit U.S. theaters, David Byrne published a blistering article in the New York Times taking world music to task as a “catchall” marketing and “pseudomusical” term for the selling of non-Western and/or non-Anglophone music that ultimately flattens individual musical contributions and historical-cultural context. But the issues of world music are not isolated to marketing. The fact that world music projects were often the product of Western (especially American) producers inevitably promoted narrow musical ideas of a geographic place principally designed to be legible for Western audiences.

Such was certainly the case with the Buena Vista Social Club, a project that produced an evocative idea of what a specific place may have sounded like half a century earlier despite the fact that several of its members had a tenuous relationship to the titular venue. Indeed, the project’s formation and name suggest an effort to encapsulate notions about a place and a time that are deeply rooted in pre-revolutionary nostalgia. By recording music from the ‘40s and ‘50s, Cooder’s project resurrected a form of the U.S.-Cuban tourism that had made Havana into a global destination. In an embargo-era U.S., Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club staged a global encounter via recording at the outset of loosening diplomatic relations at the end of the 20th century, producing an idea of Cuba both familiar (Cuba as an iconic U.S. tourist spot before 1959) and foreign (Cuba as a place geographically approximate to but in nearly every other way isolated from the U.S.).

If Wenders’s film hardly serves as a critique of world music, it at the very least sincerely seeks to overcome the category’s problems, avoiding the generalizations of the genre by addressing this group’s particular components. By framing members of the group as individuals first and foremost, Wenders trades in historical context for a profile of the musicians’ present relationship to their craft as both consummate performers and as people carrying a decades-long relationship to their country and its culture. This approach takes part in Wenders’s history of thoughtful cinematic tourism in depicting the Americas (The American Friend; Paris, Texas) as well as his distinctive sensibility when representing the historical present (Wings of Desire). The director, like Cooder, certainly presents an idea of Cuba with these stylized vignettes, but he speaks only with his camera, while his subjects speak, sing and play for themselves.

As Jelly-Schapiro points out in his Criterion essay, including Cooder and his son in this pattern of reflective narration does not quite fit. They roam Havana as tourists, not locals, and such is apparent onscreen as well as on and off stage. Yet perhaps this is a necessary maneuver for Buena Vista Social Club: to finally let the film’s context come into the fore after the musicians have said their piece, to highlight that this was never an organic project, and to indicate that both the album and film were produced by Western ears and eyes in hopes of presenting an interpretive notion of what this sound is and what it means. The balancing act that Buena Vista Social Club deftly executes lets the music and musicians speak for themselves while ultimately not hiding the interventions of outside figures like Wenders and Cooder in setting the stage for this music’s travel. World music, in this case, was not an end but a means for a happenstance encounter with exceptional musicians who otherwise risked becoming lost to obscurity.

In the 18 years since its commercial U.S. release, Buena Vista Social Club has transformed into a period piece all its own. The film is an evident byproduct of the late ‘90s in form and content, as Wenders’s DV cameras at one point capture the standing Twin Towers during the Buena Vista Social Club’s trip to New York for a Carnegie Hall performance. Knowing that so many of these musicians have since passed away, such markers of time emphasize the urgency of Cooder’s recording and Wenders’s filming: Wenders literally got his hands on whatever cameras he could in order to meet Cooder in Havana, and as a result of both the album and film’s success, the Buena Vista Social Club’s late members passed away having finally achieved renown (and some wealth) at the twilight of their lives. Moreover, in the wake of Castro’s death and the United States’s lifting of its embargo, Buena Vista Social Club resonates almost like a diplomatic effort that helped set the stage for a post-revolutionary relationship to Cuba, a rare meeting between neighbors after decades of distance.

Buena Vista Social Club is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.