Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Buena Vista Social Club

Ry Cooder. A most unusual name. I'll bet there wasn't one in your high school. Mine either.

But he's a gifted guitarist, one who appreciates the rich traditions and roots of music that we take for granted. That's why he and his son journeyed to Cuba around 1996-97. They were looking for vestiges of the Afro-Cuban style that developed in Cuba in the first half of the 20th century.

Up until 1959, Cuba was ruled by an aristocratic military dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Batista welcomed wealthy tourists from the United States. They went to Cuba looking for romantic flings, drinking, dancing, gambling and all that music. They left their dollars there and came home with lots of Cohiba cigars. We didn't seem to care about human rights abuses, vice, rampant corruption and the poverty of ordinary Cubans so long as this dictator blew in our ear, said the right things and allowed the money to flow freely our way.

Things changed radically after the 1959 revolution. Fidel Castro, educated in New York City as a lawyer, went back to Cuba to take his country back from the aristocracy. At first, Castro and the United States were buddies. Then we had a falling out, and it's never changed. Castro went to the Soviet Union for help.

Cuba went communist. It still is. And ever since, Americans have been prohibited from traveling there. We do almost no business there. We are estranged. Two generations of Cuban Americans have grown up in the "little Havana" section of Miami, Florida. Everybody once knew Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine. She's not Mexican-American.

Ry Cooder and his son faced sanctions from our government for traveling to Cuba. But what a treasure they found! Not only music but also some of the aged musicians and singers from those days long ago. They gathered in the Egrem Studios in Havana and began to play and record. There was Compay Segundo with his amazing voice and zest for life, seemingly as energetic in his 90's as many 40-year-olds. There was Barbarito Torres who can play--behind his back-- the laud, the Cuban variant of a lute-guitar with origins tracing back through Moorish Spain all the way to Arabia. There was Ruben Gonzalez, an extraordinary pianist with arhtritis in his fingers, so poor that he had no piano of his own and hadn't touched a keyboard in 10 years. And finally, there was Ibrahim Ferrer with his thrilling voice and spirit. Cooder said, "It was like Nat King Cole just walked in off the street. We didn't even know about him."

With many others, they recorded music. And they performed in public first in Amsterdam to a rapt audience. Only after achieving international acclaim were these muscial treasures allowed to come to the USA and play at Carnegie Hall. The documentary film Buena Vista Social Club has footage I will never forget. The sight and sound of Ruben Gonzales' amazing fingers on the gleaming black grand piano and his sense of style are truly works of art. Thank you, Ry Cooder!

Funny. Cuba is right off our shores, but they are our enemy. Fidel Castro is no longer in power. His younger but aging brother Raoul is, but not forever. Canadians have been able to go to Cuba and trade with Cuba for two generations. Doing so has not brought fire and brimstone from the sky, hasn't caused their brains to rot.

"But Cuba is Communist! There are human rights abuses there!" our leaders protest. In the words of Dick Cheney, "So?" Those very things haven't stopped us from not only going to China, trading with China and embracing China. We have, in fact, mortgaged our very souls to China. Our country can no longer exist without China because over 90% of the stuff we sell in our stores is made there, and we depend on China to finance the debt we have racked up in order to fight wars we have said are necessary for our nation's survival. Your car is probably riding on Chinese tires.

There are no prospects for changing this anytime soon--if ever. This we have done by choice because we are lazy and addicted to cheap and abundant stuff, even if it means selling our nation's stability and future security. We are truly hypocrites about communism.

Meanwhile, we hold Cuba at arm's length and hold our noses. For God's sake, why? They are our neighbors while China is not. Why? Because we are afraid of losing electoral votes in presidential elections since everybody knows you don't win the White House without Florida's electoral votes--even if you have to rig the elections (Katherine Harris) and get the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that a rigged result is legitimate.

As we contemplate Communist Cuba and Communist China, whom we love and whom we hate, we might ask this question. When was the last time we suspected that Cuba had hacked into the computers of the Pentagon, the financial and telecommunications systems and major utilities in the U.S.? When was the last time Cuba sent toxic children's toys, counterfeit music and medicines, jewelry laced with heavy metals and contaminated foodstuffs to this country? Whom should we really fear? Which nation has nuclear weapons and unclear ambitions in the world? Which nation effectively has us by the throat?

When will we have the wisdom and grace to do the right thing with our neighbors? We make more friends by being friends than by being enemies.

Meanwhile, thank God for ambassadors like Ry Cooder who won't be stopped. Buy the (now) old CD Buena Vista Social Club and enjoy the extraordinary music. Rent the movie if you can. Most of the major artists are no longer alive. Sometimes, you only get one chance in life to do the right thing even if you're 50 years late in doing so.



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