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Friday, Jan. 28, 2000


Mr. Segundo goes to Carnegie Hall

Slide guitarist extraordinaire and soundtrack composer Ry Cooder went to Cuba in 1996 on a small project for the Nonesuch record label, to record a bunch of long-forgotten musicians from the Buena Vista Social Club, a nightclub famous in the swinging pre-Castro Havana of the '50s. The album of these sensuous old bolero songs, produced by Cooder, had a low-impact release in late 1997, but critical praise, good word of mouth and a Latin music boom in the States led to the album going platinum some 100 weeks later, in the summer of '99.

By happy coincidence, that's when the documentary film on the musicians, also titled "Buena Vista Social Club," first hit the theaters. Filmed in '98 by Cooder's longtime friend and collaborator Wim Wenders ("Paris, Texas") when Cooder was recording a follow-up album with the musicians, it caught the Buena Vista musicians on the cusp of their fame.

In a wonderfully poignant piece of timing, Wenders was able to accompany the aged musicians, still largely unaware of their popularity outside Cuba, as they went abroad for the first time in their careers. The film climaxes with their two sold-out concerts in Amsterdam and a final, triumphant show at New York's Carnegie Hall, where the Cubans' faces positively glow with exhilaration and disbelief.

America may demonize Castro's Cuba, but if there's one thing America loves, it's a success story, and "Buena Vista Social Club" is certainly that, a real-life feel-good tale to rival anything Frank Capra made. With characters like the charismatic 72-year-old singer Ibrahim Ferrer, who was shining shoes for a living until Cooder dragged him into the studio, or the irascible ninetysomething guitarist Compay Segundo, who spent years toiling in the tobacco fields, "Buena Vista" is a tale that has managed to transcend half a century of political confrontation.

Here in Japan, the political ramifications may be less marked than in the States, but the music will certainly open some ears. Imagine if Edith Piaf, Nat King Cole and Thelonious Monk had remained unknown until yesterday, and you'll have some idea of the mother lode that Cooder struck in Havana.

Ferrer and Segundo -- and their colleagues, singer Omara Portuondo, pianist Ruben Gonzalez and singer Pio Leyva -- may all be well past retirement age, but their technique is still impressive, their music infectious, and their passion for it seems re-kindled by this unexpected opportunity for an encore.

It's worth noting that unlike, say, "The Last Waltz" (now playing in revival at Shibuya Cine Palace), "Buena Vista" is not so much a straight concert film as a documentary, and Wenders seems far more at home with the latter. Working with a minimal crew and shooting on portable digital video cameras, Wenders -- as he did in his earlier '70s work like "Tokyo-ga" and "Notebook on Cities and Clothes" -- settles into the rhythm of Havana. His inquisitive eye captures the feel of the city in bold, sun-bleached color: strolling the streets with Segundo looking for the old club; trailing Omara through her childhood neighborhood as she serenades one and all; and accompanying Ferrer to his humble shrine at home. There he offers rum to a deity and remarks, "If we'd followed the way of possessions, we would have been gone a long time ago." Imagine that -- a Cuban who doesn't want to move to Miami and live next to a Wal-Mart.

Wenders' unobtrusiveness (unlike his earlier "journals," he largely keeps himself out of the work) serves him well in one-on-one interviews with the musicians, who have some truly touching stories to tell, vivid tales of how they learned their craft, rose to the top and sank to obscurity.

He's not half as unobtrusive in the editing room, however, where he seems compelled to interrupt every performance with a cut-away to the Havana interviews. All of these are compelling, but just once it would be nice to see an entire song performed from beginning to end.

Still, when Wenders gets it right, everything flows perfectly: One segment has Ibrahim Ferrer singing a just-penned piece, the beautifully moody "Silencio," for the first time in the studio, and at the perfect moment, it cuts to the concert stage for a dramatic conclusion to the piece.

Wenders' other major stylistic move was to shoot on digital video, which has some clear advantages, mainly in giving him the freedom to shoot on the fly and on a low budget. But the silent digital cameras also allow him to enter the studio, for intimate shots that would have been impossible with the whirring film cameras of yesteryear. Still, one wishes that Wenders hadn't operated under the idea that shooting on a handicam means the results have to look like a tourist's home video. This becomes even more irritating when these amateurish bits are intercut with those shot by a steadier hand.

Never fear: Wenders' slightly awkward technique pales in significance to the mesmerizing life stories and musical performances on display here. Whether it's pianist Gonzalez busking with glee for a group of Havana kids, or the looks of astonishment as the Cubans encounter Manhattan after a lifetime of laid-back Havana, there are more priceless moments here than in a 10-fingered chord.

It's also stirring, in these days of dollars uber alles, to see musicians for whom spirit trumps profit. The passion with which they sing "Cienfuegos," and its lyric "I feel so proud to sing to you about my land," and the fact that not one of them has defected, reflects their acknowledgment that their music springs from their culture, that who they are and what they've become is intrinsically part of where they are.

Viva Cuba -- and please forget Ricky Martin.

"Buena Vista Social Club" is playing at Cinema Rise in Shibuya.

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