Chan Chan goes to Washington

Compay Segundo.jpg

Buena Vista Social Club at the White House, one of the many signs of the U.S.-Cuba thaw. Nice. The music and the thaw. Oh, I get the objections. But this standoff had to end one way or another, and it ended this way. Not perfect, but in international politics, what is?

Besides, I leave political analysis to others who are more qualified. Buena Vista Social Club, about that I have something to say. In fact, I have said it all before, but because I see the same misunderstandings pop up, I will say it again.

First of all, Buena Vista Social Club was never an ensemble. It was -- and I use the past tense because some of the musicians have died -- a collection of artists, some of them quite forgotten, that a savvy Cuban producer had found and introduced to Ry Cooder, who was in the island for an entirely different project. Cooder knew little or nothing about Cuban music, but he's always has a very good ear. He loved these geezers and with his help the album Buena Vista Social Club entered the American music scene.

His help and his participation. The album spread word-of-mouth, something that always cheers me up. I was somewhere in the chain when someone gave me a cassette. Since this was a copy there was no information and the music was a little weird. Eventually I learned that it was Cooder's slide guitar that had baffled me, for there is no such instrumentation in Cuban music. 

And the song "Chan Chan" was of a somewhat lesser known genre, trova, with a chorus that was nothing but the names of towns I'd never heard of in the Eastern end of the island -- habaneros like me can be like snooty New Yorkers, fairly ignorant of what we call "the interior." The rest of the lyrics were also puzzling, a mystery that was solved when I interviewed Compay Segundo, who explained to me in plain language what the very naughty double entendres meant. Curious that this would become a hit. 

Segundo was so nicknamed because he'd made a living singing "second voice" to more important singers. In other words, he sang back-up. Eventually he developed a cult following in Spain but remained a relatively minor figure until the Buena Vista album. 

In fact they were all minor figures with the possible exception of Omara Portuondo, and even she, as a member of the girl group Las D'Aida was not the most prominent -- that would've been Elena Burke. In all fairness, I should say that I'm a big fan of Omara and have been moved to tears by her nuanced singing. 

The big stars were on this side of the Florida Straits. First and foremost, Celia Cruz. Certainly the master bassist and composer Cachao, whose "Buena Vista Social Club" is performed in the eponymous album without attribution. And many more. Some came to the U.S. as part of the waves of exile, others like the great percussionist Mongo Santamaria moved north earlier because of the opportunities afforded by the jazz scene. And before and after the Revolution great Cuban talents found a home in the New York Latin music scene, first with the mambo and later with salsa. 

Of the top rung talent that never left none was bigger than Beny Moré, who died in 1963. Curiously, he is virtually deified by the first wave of exiles, for whom he was the last great star of their Cuban life, but less of a cult in Cuba, from which he never migrated. Another major act that stayed was the Orquesta Aragón, whose flute and violin style was a huge influence on the salsa scene. But the Buena Vista cats, good as they were and are, are mostly second rung. How that is possible I answer by saying Cuban musicians are so good that even minor figures and back-up musicians are awesome.

A myth among newcomers to Cuba music is that the Buena Vista phenomenon brought Cuban music to the spotlight. Not true. Cuban music has always been important in the U.S. due to the great artists I just talked about. That myth is a corollary to the notion of Cuba as a forbidden island. True, there was a travel ban. It's also true that it was flagrantly ignored or sidestepped. Omara Portuondo had already played New York. Orquesta Aragón had also gigged in Manhattan, and from the newer wave, NG La Banda performed in Miami Beach and led the audience in a conga line out on the street. Pablo Milanés, the leading singer/songwriter of the pro-Revolution genre Nueva Trova, sang in Central Park. I was there for all the performances I've mentioned here, so I don't know what mystery there could be that the performance of Buena Vista Social Club at the White House (Mr. President, what happened to my invite?) has now unveiled.

Unlike, say, Milanés, these old codgers don't do political music. Many fault Omara Portuondo's political stances, but these have nothing to do (that I know) with her songs. Even Milanés, when he sang in Central Park, looked frankly annoyed when some of the city's lefties would break the mood of his most beautiful and apolitical love songs with shouted slogans, some incongruously from the Spanish Civil War. He said nothing but his face read, what a-holes. 

Me? I can never forget the frankly sexual subtext of "Chan Chan", according to the late Compay Segundo himself, nor his transparently risque asides at the Miami performance that was notoriously evacuated by a bomb threat -- by a political group, though given the nature of his songs it could've been the Legion of Decency. Never mind the catchy "El Cuarto de Tula" that got everyone rocking at the White House. What was Tula doing in her room that made it so hot it caught fire? Never mind, here come the firemen with their big hoses to put it out. Oh yes, that's my Cuba.