Buena Vista Social Club Is Amazing, but Don’t Confuse It with the Real Thing

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Some music fans listen to what they like and don’t care too much beyond that. Others consider the source of a piece, its quality, its intent to matter a lot. This second set, you might call them more “concerned” fans, look for originality in music, as well as purity of purpose and integrity of execution. A song or an album that is happily accepted by the mainstream public may be viewed with suspicion by that more discerning (you can call them “elitist” if you like) crowd.

Consider Buena Vista Social Club (BVSC), the compilation of Cuban music released in 1997. Very quickly, and very surprisingly, BVSC became a hit, then a smash hit, then a worldwide phenomenon. Inspired by the Cuban rhythms of the 1940s and 50s, a large group of immensely talented musicians produced songs that seemed like windows into a long lost past. The album spawned a documentary film and numerous follow-up efforts by many of the musicians involved. It was hailed for reviving Cuban music and bringing it back to the world’s attention. The problem, some “concerned” music observers have suggested, is that the music of BVSC is not really authentic, because it’s very different from the actual songs played half a century ago.

The brainchild of American guitarist Ry Cooder, British producer Nick Gold, and Cuban musical director Juan de Marcos González, BVSC was recorded over six days in Havana in 1996. It featured veteran singers and musicians such as Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Rubén González, and Eliades Ochoa. Many of the songs were based on tunes actually written in the 40s or even earlier, but a large part of the recording work involved extended descargas, which are jam sessions in which the performers improvise while they play off each other.

The lyrics were romantic, sometimes sensual, and avoided mention of Cuba’s troubled political history. “¿Y Tú Qué Has Hecho?” is a simple fable about the friendship between a little girl and a tree. “El Carretero” celebrates the hard work of a country wagon man. Some, like “Chan Chan” and “Hotel Buena Vista” mix Spanish and English lyrics. The songs work equally well at dance parties and as easy-listening background music.

There’s no doubt that the tunes are great, and the album did a great service to veteran Cuban musicians who had long lost their popularity or retired from performing altogether. Certainly nobody can begrudge Cooder and his collaborators their success. However, as Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor explain in their book Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, the impact of BVSC was such that it calls for deeper scrutiny. Precisely because of its popularity it has gone to the top of the list of must-listen albums of Cuban music. Barker and Taylor find this worrisome, because Cooder didn’t just have the performers play old tunes using traditional instruments and rhythms. He very deliberately created a sound that would, he hoped, be accessible and palatable to a mass international audience. Instead of the traditional Cuban drums, Cooder enlisted his son to play on African drums during several of the studio recordings. Cooder himself played slide-guitar (not a Cuban staple, to say the least), while he recorded certain instruments away from the microphones so the music sounded “older.” Overall, according to Barker and Taylor, BVSC was “knowingly inauthentic, hybrid music” that “ended up being marketed as ‘the real thing.’”

But why isn’t it the real thing? The talent and passion of the musicians who created it was real enough, and the joy that people feel when listening to their songs is real as well. It doesn’t seem a bad thing that an American guitarist brought new instruments and sounds to a traditional genre.

Musicians have been doing this throughout history. Barker and Taylor make it clear that they are not opposed to cultural cross-pollination in music. It’s through encounter with new and unfamiliar things that music changes and evolves. At the same time, they are concerned about the seemingly exploitative way in which Cooder adopted the Cuban rhythms and transformed them with the specific purpose of selling more albums.

This issue of white musicians going to less known and more “exotic” parts of the world to give “ethnic flavor” to their music has dogged stars such as Paul Simon, who collaborated with South African musicians for his hit album Graceland and then went to Brazil for its follow-up, The Rhythm of the Saints. Unwary audiences might confuse the mash ups in those albums, as in BVSC, and confuse them for the actual indigenous music of those nations.

The problem, then, is not with the music itself, but with the intentions of those who make it and the awareness (or lack thereof) of those who consume it.

It’s very common to hear musicians, especially successful musicians, talk about “keeping it real” and avoid “selling out” to the commercial interests of the record and media companies. Think of Jennifer Lopez singing “nothing phony, don’t hate on me/what you get is what you see” in “Jenny from the Block.” On the other hand, it’s always been true that some global stars embrace fakeness and pretense in their personas – what Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus are doing today was the bread-and-butter of bands like KISS in the 1980s and The Monkees in the 1960s. Nothing wrong with that, as long as it’s done openly and honestly. Then, there’s no danger of music lovers mistaking something fabricated out of disparate parts for something pure and authentic, the “real thing.”

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