Monday, April 14, 2008

Buena Vista Social Club

Someone, I think my cousin Cheeta, demanded I write about cinema. So here it is. Many years after it was made, I stumbled on the extraordinary movie "Buena Vista Social Club" made by legendary German film director Wim Wenders. The movie features well-known slide guitarist Ry Cooder, who I remember as the source of that weird buzzing, quivering, tingling slide guitar sound on the Rolling Stones song "Sister Morphine" from the Sticky Fingers album. If you don't remember that album, you might not have been alive in 1970, or perhaps you were busy taking morphine! Cooder also shared a Grammy in 1993 with Hindustani Classical guitarist Vishwamohan Bhatt for an album called "A meeting by the river".

Back to the movie: Cooder goes to Cuba and ends up searching for long-forgotten Cuban musicians, re-assembles them and gets them to record their music (in the style called "son"). This recording, together with the film I'm describing, makes the said musicians famous and sparks off a craze in the West for Latin American music.

The film is a documentary of the "re-discovery" of these musicians by Cooder, most of them living in obscurity even within Cuba. I found it masterfully made (what else would one expect of Wenders?) and was especially struck by the lovingly filmed scenes of Havana. The opening sequence on the sea-front drive will remind any Bombay-ite who was around in the 1960's (and not taking morphine) of our own Marine Drive. And in fact the film reminds me of Mumbai in a hundred different ways.

The songs are spectacular. One risk of watching this movie (and listening to the CD) is that the first song, Chan Chan, is addictive. I haven't been able to get it out of my head for a month now. The remaining songs are addictive too. My father loved this kind of music. If he hadn't been dead the last 32 years, this music would have gripped him right away.

The movie has been criticised for having too much of Cooder in the frame, and Cooder has been criticised for using this platform to promote himself. Both criticisms are sort of valid and sort of irrelevant. Those of us who haven't spent the last decade travelling to Cuba to seek out forgotten musicians ought to be grateful for this opportunity to see and hear them. If Cooder's guitar is occasionally a bit intrusive, he certainly does his best to highlight the musicians, and Wenders manages to put together a story about Cuba without commenting either way on the thorny political issues in which this island has been entangled for decades.

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