Buena Vista Social Club
"If I have to play Chan Chan one more time in the bar, I'm going to scream," a young musician in Cuba told Cooder. Everybody knows Chan Chan. Even if you've never seen the legendary Buena Vista Social Club or heard the album, you'd have to have spent the last 10 years in Timbuktu not to recognise the song's wonderful opening bars. In fact you'd have probably heard it in Timbuktu. Maybe on Mars, then.
While it's a shame that 1998's Oscar-winning Buena Vista Social Club didn't spark a major revival of 1950s-style son music, Cooder remains philosophical. "You can't revive something. It can't be done because popular music never stands still. You can try to make a theme park out it, like Disneyland, but people want something else like a new dance step or a new rhythm. I just say well fine - the world's always been that way."
Cooder contends that for all the beauty of the music, it was the characters behind the songs who captivated filmgoers. "Music is secondary I suppose. Pretty tunes are a dime a dozen - it's just sound. But it's the story, the people."
To non-Cubans the Buena Vista sound seemed a perfect soundtrack to our enduring image of the country: all faded grandeur, ghosts of long-gone high rollers and the fabulous cars they left behind. Cooder believes the music possesses a "very elegant melancholy". But he acknowledges it may have sounded arcane to the island's younger generation.
He explains: "By the time we were there in the Nineties, the musical community from that generation was decimated. There was nobody left. Half the people we asked for had died. They even said Ruben Gonzales was dead. Why? 'Because we haven't seen him.' He's just sitting in his house; it's assumed he's no longer on the scene because there is no scene. All these people had been sidelined, simply by taste.
"In Cuba they love new forms (of music). They're very active at dancing, very athletic and forward-looking. So these old timers had been shut out by the simple fact of time marching on."
While Cubans in Cuba were not much interested in the old timers' music, the audience at New York's Carnegie Hall was a different story, made up mainly of older Cuban expatriates. And nothing brings back memories of home like food and music.
The Carnegie Hall crowd at the time would no doubt have been familiar with many of those on stage. Most of the musicians had been huge stars in their time, with the surprise exception being singer Ibrahim Ferrer, who had, according to Cooder, only ever been 'peripheral'. The elderly bolero singer had been reduced to shining shoes, and each day they recorded together Cooder had to persuade the incredulous Ferrer to come back the next.
Cooder agrees that one of the most heart-warming parts of the film's story was seeing the elderly musicians "being taken seriously and valued again. That's a very important point and certainly is true. And of course, it's all embodied in the character of Ferrer, who was pulled in off the streets shining shoes, as poor as a Cuban can be, and then stuck in front of a microphone.
"He said to me: 'I do not do this any more, don't ask.' Well, I insisted on it. 'You're sure, me?' He kept looking around. 'Who's he talking to?' It's you I'm talking to, I want you to come back. 'Well, if you're sure…' Yes I'm sure. 'Well I'll be here if you want me.' Well I want you.
"And then look what happened: the experience for him was one of the most astonishing things I've seen in 45 years of making records. That's what everybody saw in that film. Then, of course, they became devotees of this guy and the others."
Somehow in the intervening years, Ferrer's voice had not only not deteriorated – unusual for a bolero singer who uses mainly top notes - but actually improved. What had given it that new patina?
"I don't know," Cooder answered honestly. "He hadn't been singing much, he had hardly done any singing, he hadn't wrecked his voice singing loud and he had preserved himself. He had gone into some kind of time-warp. I've seen this a lot of times where people stay in their era, and then time passes them by. Then the next time you go looking for them, as far as they're concerned it's still 1956."
Then tellingly, Cooder adds, "One thing though: he gave up trying and he gave up struggling. He said so. He said: 'I just let it all go' and that's what I love in his singing.
"When we first recorded him there was none of this striving and trying and intent. And you can always hear that - 'I've gotta be me' - it comes across within seconds, and you don't like it - not in a beautiful bolero. We want to soar above all that, we want to float above all that, get away from all that goddamn struggle, which ruins the beauty of the tune somehow. It taints it, it's hard for it not to, but those who can disassociate themselves – and there are very few – in any field, are the ones who make this ethereal, beautiful sound. That's just what I believe - that's just my little theory."
It was a stroke of luck that brought the Buena Vista Social Club its success. It was far from planned. Cooder and Nick Gold were originally supposed to collaborate with some African musicians in Cuba, but the musicians never arrived. Instead they began gathering son stars for a project that evolved around the concept of a vanished musicians' social club called, you've guessed it, the Buena Vista Social Club.
However most of the musicians had belonged to different musical disciplines and would normally not have shared a stage. But results of their session convinced them they were onto something good.
Cooder explains: "The mixture of styles on that record would never have been done by Cubans themselves because they're very strict that way. Cha cha is one thing and son is another, guajira another and Barbarita on the laoud (a string instrument) another. You never mix them up - it's unheard of. But when they heard the playback they realised how beautiful it was."
There are wonderful moments of tenderness in the film. When Omara Portuondo and Ferrer duet on Dos Gardenias, a tear slides down the cheek of the magnificent Portuondo, and the liquid-eyed Ferrer leans forward and tenderly wipes it away. The humanity behind the musicians gave non-Cubans an insight into the spirit which lay behind the elegant old tunes.
Cooder tells the story of Ferrer's first visit to LA. The pair went to a grocery store in a posh neighbourhood. After much marvelling at the goods on display, while standing in the check-out queue the customer in front of them turned around. Realising she was face-to-face with the star of the Buena Vista Social Club, "her eyes fill with tears and she starts sobbing, and I said to myself 'we got it', you know, it's a hit, if this fancy-dressed woman starts sobbing, can't even speak, doesn't even say 'oh it's Ibrahim Ferrer', can't even get the words out. He (Ferrer) comforted her. I'm sure all she said was 'wait until I tell my husband.'"
Ferrer and Compay Segundo have slipped away to play boleros in the dancehall in the sky, but Portuondo is still working, and no doubt others are too.
This year, 10 years on from the Wim Wenders film – itself a year after Cooder and Gold put out the first Buena Vista Social Club album with the iconic cover shot of Ibrahim Ferrer walking down a dusty street in Havana - comes the second album, this time a powerful, live recording of the triumphant dream-come-true concert at Carnegie Hall. Its cover transposes the original image of Ferrer from Havana to a glittering New York.
I asked Cooder, what, to put it politely, took them so long? "At that time there was such a flurry of interest, such a lot going on, that to release just another version of it would've been almost like throwing it away.
"Ten years go by and by then the thing has a cachet of its own. Most people who liked that record at the time remember certain qualities about it. Now this is totally different, this is live music. These people are very vigorous, still playing very well, still all together - but only the once. I mean, it's rather dramatic, 10 years later."
We were privileged to hear an echo of 1950s Havana, recalling the days when Ernest Hemingway was in residence, drinking mojitos in the late afternoon sunshine. But listening to the Buena Vista Social Club live at Carnegie Hall you can hear the amazing energy and musicality of the short-lived phenomenon of a band that only recorded together in the studio for 10 days.
The last word goes to Mr Cooder, without whom the Buena Vista Social Club would never have happened. Of the energy and freshness of this recording he says: "Oh it rocks! Boy, does it rock. It amazed me after 10 years, I hadn't ever heard it in 10 years, so I hadn't remembered it. So when me and the engineer started working on it I said 'my God, listen to this!' Listen to the rhythm, listen to these people hit the lick.
"You can feel the audience just going mad, because it was mostly Cubans in that audience, exiled ex-pat Cubans who live in New York and New Jersey - which is a lot of Cubans. Being an older bunch and homesick – there's nothing more homesick than a homesick Cuban – they really went crazy in there. It was joyful, you know."