20 years ago the Buena Vista Social Club documentary and album were released to worldwide acclaim. Afro-Cuban music is still some of the most vibrant and infectiously rhythmic music in the world.
The Buena Vista Social Club is the story of a group of musicians who were trapped by history but who were also ultimately granted a reprieve, and as result revived a genre that was almost lost.
This week with the release of our friend Lucy Walker’s new film Buena Vista Social Club: Adios we celebrate the sounds and history of Cuban music.
Lucy Walker (Wasteland and Crash Reel) brings us the sequel to Buena Vista Social Club which exposed the world to Cuba’s vibrant musical culture with a 1997 album and Wim Wenders’ documentary a couple years later. Now, against the backdrop of Cuba’s unique musical history, we hear the band’s story as they reflect on their remarkable careers and the extraordinary circumstances that brought them together.
Since the film’s release, many of the members of the Buena Vista Social Club – including Ibrahim Ferrer, Compay Segundo, Ruben Gonzalez and Orlando “Cachaíto” López – have died. But the sequel deftly and thoughtfully reflects on their legacy and efforts by surviving members Omara Portuondo, Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal and Barbarito Torres to keep the group’s music alive.
“The music and the culture of Cuba are very much intertwined. So as these artists share their music, they are also sharing their incredible history. We are able to experience the last hundred years of the country’s history through their eyes,” producer Zak Kilberg said in a statement.
Some of these musicians lived into their seventies and eighties – and nineties in Compay’s case – before finding the type of global success that came with Buena Vista Social Club. Despite that, there is an optimism in their story that is unique and powerful. The Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club’s final tour also brought the group to the White House. There they performed for Barack Obama – just a few months after America restored diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time in 54 years.
“For nearly two decades, this group has been a symbol of the strong bonds between the Cuban and American people. Bonds of friendship, culture and of course music,” the president said at the time.
Wim Wenders’ film documents how eclectic guitarist and roots music advocate Ry Cooder brought together this ensemble of legendary Cuban musicians to record an album and to perform three times with a full line-up: twice in Amsterdam in April 1998 and at Carnegie Hall on the 1st of July.
Even though it’s just 110 miles from Florida, travel to Cuba was restricted for over fifty years following the Cuban Missile Crisis — so for the NYC concert many of the artists were setting foot in States for the first time. The film captures their reactions to this experience, plus footage of the sell-out concerts. It also includes interviews back in Cuba with each of the main performers.
The Oscar-nominated documentary includes appearances by Ry & Joaquim Cooder, Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben Gonzales, Eliades Ochoa, Omara Portuondo, Compay Segundo and many other renowned Cuban musicians.
Cuban director Rogelio Paris’s documentary provides an incisive overview of the Cuban music scene before and after the Cuban revolution, 1940 – 1960 capturing the mood and vitality of Havana during its heyday.
Never before and never since has the diverse panorama of Cuban music been captured with quite as much style and cinematic flare. Filmed in the heady days of the 1960s, Nosotros la músicais is impregnated with the experimental spirit that put post-revolutionary Cuban cinema on the map. From the huge crumbling urban solares (apartment buildings) and callejones (alleys), to the flashy nightclubs, and finally to the rural jam sessions and church meetings of the island’s eastern mountains, director Paris goes deep into the soul of Cuban music and finds a stunning diversity often glossed over by foreign film crews.
The film, which has become a cult-like object of rediscovery, presents songs, popular music, and dances through a mix of Free Cinema and musical theater by an amazing range of locally and internationally famous performers of the time — Bola de Nieve, Celeste Mendoza, Elena Burke, Charanga Francesa, the Ignacio Piñeiro Septet, and various carnival troupes from Havana.
Les Blank documented American roots music for nearly fifty years. With this film he captures the rhythms of Latin jazz as transmitted by Cuban born percussionist Francisco Aguabella, a master of the conga drum who recorded with Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie and The Doors.
A revered figure in Afro-Cuban and Latin jazz drumming, Aguabella has been called “…a virtual Rosetta stone of African culture, who has been highly influential in the growth of Latin jazz, pop and fusion in the U.S.”
For Aguabeila, who migrated to the USA in 1957, drumming is an integral part of his santeria religion—he’s a master of the bata, a special ceremonial drum. Blank’s film explores Aguabella’s drumming styles, his religion, and features interviews with associates such as dance innovator Katherine Dunham and bassist ‘Cachao’ Lopez. But it’s the music itself that makes the most powerful case for Aguabella’s genius — and Blank’s film has plenty of it.
NIGHT IN HAVANA: DIZZY GILLESPIE IN CUBA (1989)
Focusing on one of the key figures in both bebop and Afro-Cuban jazz, this only film by director John Holland follows American jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie on a spring 1985 journey to forbidden island of the Caribbean. Gillespie defied US sanctions to travel to Cuba for a series of shows for the first time since Fidel Castro came to power, and perform at the fifth annual International Jazz Festival of Havana.
The film features a lot of performance with side men like Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, a Gillespie protégé who would eventually defect to the States. There are interviews, performance, and wonderful scenes of Gillespie mixing with crowds of eager locals and children.
In concert footage, the balloon-cheeked musician plays “A Night in Tunisia” and “Cubana Bop”, among other favorites. In interviews, the musician speaks about his past and the musical compositions which inspired him.
Prolific Cuban documentary director Rebeca Chávez brings us this profile of the great Cuban singer and actress Rita Montaner (1900-1958). She achieved international fame as Rita de Cuba – but in her homeland she was known as “La Única (the one and only).”
A classically trained pianist and singer, and a natural actress, Montaner became an international star of theater, film, radio, and television, performing in New York with Xavier Cugat and Al Jolson, in Paris with Josephine Baker, but always returning to Cuba where she was an enduring radio and stage celebrity. The documentary humanizes her mythical stature through personal accounts, recreations, and visual documentation of her professional life.