The Buena Vista Social Club: A Representation of the Special Period?

The ‘re-opening’ of Cuba physically to the mass influx of tourists served not only to reintroduce foreign cultural influences into the vocabulary of Cuban musicians, but it also served to ‘reintroduce’ Cuban traditional music back into the market place, securing a prominent role within the burgeoning market of ‘world music’. As with the hedonistic pre-revolutionary closeness between the US and Cuba (Perez, 1999) in the special period, with the vast monetary advantages that came with playing (and appealing) to tourist audiences, Cuban musical identity began to be defined from without once more. This time it was nostalgic images of crumbling colonial edifices, 1950s Cadillacs and somehow ‘timeless’ yet forgotten musical masters plying the same wares unhampered and unhindered by the passing of traumatic time. This latter narrative was cemented (and even invented) by the unexpected, and colossus, global success of one band: The Buena Vista Social Club.

It is hardly necessary to revisit the global success of this band here, nor to provide a critique of their ‘authentic Cubanness’, or lack thereof. For a succinct account of these factors, I would refer the reader to the chapter dedicated to the Buena Vista Social Club in Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor’s “Faking it: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music” (2007) and to Vincenzo Perna’s discussion of the band in chapter nine of his work (2005). A brief account of the key moments will suffice here. In 1996, the end of the most severe part of the special period as Cuba had cemented its position as a world tourist destination, American guitarist Ry Cooder recorded a conglomerated mix of Cuban musicians and musics from different generations. In 1997, the album was released to critical acclaim and commercial success. In 1999, director Win Wendes travelled to Cuba to record a documentary featuring the members of the band, and in the same year, the Buena Vista Social Club performed in Amsterdam and New York’s Carnegie Hall, further increasing the acclaim (and sales) of the original album. In the interim fourteen years, numerous projects have been sold utilising the epithet ‘Buena Vista Social Club’[1]. The band recently embarked on a European tour in which few of the original members performed. The name ‘Buena Vista’ now exists as something of a cultural short-hand for ‘authentic Cuban music’ rather than pertaining to that original recording or band. It has become a symbol of Cuba once more, partially at the behest of the tourist market, but partially as a response from Cuban musicians to what they believed tourists wished to find on their ‘return’ to the island.

When discussing the recording of ‘The Buena Vista Social Club’, Barker and Taylor provide a rather negative account of an unrepresentative musical fusion. “The ageing musicians’ natural styles came from various stages of the island’s past, and Cuban music had long since moved onto new styles” (2007:300), later adding “Cooder[2] was looking back to a golden age while disregarding more modern developments” (ibid.:304). Arguments surrounding ‘authenticity’ aside, these two quotes reveal something more pertinent to this discussion. The CD – and particularly Ry Cooder’s hand in it – represent perhaps the inevitable musical conclusion of the Cuban government’s partnership with private, foreign companies.

The Buena Vista Social Club could perhaps be represented as offering something of a musical equivalent to the opulent, colonial-esque grand hotels built by foreign firms to re-imagine a ‘golden’, hedonistic past in present day Cuba. It is not my intention to draw comparisons between Cuban builders hired onto hotel building projects at vastly reduced wages (as discussed by Berg, 2005) and the musicians of the Buena Vista Social Club; such a comparison would perhaps be an unfair one. However, whilst Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer et al were the personalities, Cooder was always seen as the architect that made the project possible. It is worth noting that both the large hotels and this CD were manufactured by foreign hands and both were manufactured for foreign ‘use’. As Barker and Taylor suggest (rather contentiously) “most Cubans have never heard the record” (2007:302); they were never meant to. The project was designed as a projection of Cuba to the outside world, rather than a reflection of it to those within. It was music for the tourists. It is not surprising that both the tourist industry and Ry Cooder’s production wanted to look back to create their new visions of Cuba. Both looked to the 1940s, Cooder “deliberately replicating… Cuban recordings of the 1940s” (ibid.:300) as this was the last great age of global tourism to Cuba; before the iron door of political isolation slammed shut. Buena Vista represent the effect of the special period and its compromises. Cuba once more had to negotiate its position in global consciousness; it had to present, as all nations do, a succinct portrait of its cultural heritage and identity to represent itself in the necessarily reductivist arena of ‘world music’. As this image of ‘golden era’ Cuba still loomed large in globally constructed narratives (and also because the still continuing revolution was perhaps a much more controversial and divisive narrative to present), it became the backbone of this construction of Cuban identity from global consumption.

However,  if the Buena Vista Social Club were essentially a product aimed at the foreign market, seldom (if ever) heard by Cubans themselves, how do they represent an anathematic portrayal of Cuba to many of the island’s younger musicians? For the final time, I quote Barker and Taylor as they discuss the group’s final, joyous concert at Carnegie Hall in New York:

Old men often like to have fun. Looking back they sometimes like to simplify and parody their past, partly to remember what was best about it and party to tease the younger generation (ibid. p.314)

It goes without saying that young Cubans have had to endure the older generation ‘remembering what was best’ about a semi-mythical past that played itself out long before they were born. If the Buena Vista Social Club did indeed represent a backwards facing look at Cuba’s golden past, it rang hollow when viewed from the less than golden present it had created. What the reinvention of a nostalgic Cuba – one that had seemingly stood still or entirely circumvented the revolutionary epoch – again demonstrated was a definition of Cuban identity as defined from without, or certainly with ‘those from without’ in mind. It was a projection not of what Cuba wished to be, but what it perhaps thought ‘others’ wanted it to be, or what it needed to be to survive economically in the wake of the special period. Such definitions of Cuban music were, of course, anathematic and antithetical to the hybridised bricolage ‘global Cubanness’ young Cuban musicians were forging in the same period. It was seen as retrogressive, conservative and a deeply false projection of contemporary Cuban identity, denying the legitimacy of – indeed entirely excising – all that they had lived through, all that they had experienced. Once more, the old men were in charge, once more the father (or grandfather) was placing the apple atop Guillermo Tell’s head, once more Cuba’s youth were silenced, subjugated and denied entrance to the space ‘authentic Cuban identity’. 

[1] As Perna points out, the name is now a registered trade mark (2005: 241).

[2] Ry Cooder was the American producer and sometime slide guitar player on the record


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