Nostalgia ride to Cuba with Buena Vista Social Club and Graham Greene

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 May, 2015, 11:10pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 May, 2015, 11:10pm

Day in the sun for Cuba's musicians

Buena Vista Social Club

Buena Vista Social Club (1997)

World Circuit

It seems churlish now that Cuba has been welcomed into the modern - American - world that guitarist Ry Cooder was rounded on in some quarters after the chart-topping success of this collaboration with some of the island's musicians.

The charge was that he had taken advantage of their talent and rich history for his own financial gain. But if you caught the many forms of Buena Vista Social Club as the ensemble toured the globe, you'd know these seasoned musicians relished the chance to grab the thing they were denied for so long because of Cuba's isolation: an audience.

Cooder had initially travelled to the island in 1996 with the aim of recording a collaboration between African and Cuban musicians. However, when the Africans were denied entry, he turned his attention to Cuba's son sounds and those who had been producing them since the 1920s, first in the glory days before the cold war when Havana drew the highs and lows of the global jet set to its bars and nightclubs, and through the darker times when Cuba's economy and its people struggled to make ends meet.

Some of the musicians had scratched out a living as session players, some were still playing live in the same clubs they had always played in, and some had drifted away from music through the simple lack of opportunities.

This album's sheer brilliance stems from the fact that the American had been able to call on the likes of vocalists Compay Segundo and Ibrahim Ferrer, and jack-in-the-box pianist Ruben Gonzalez - names that were known only to jazz and world music purists before this record hit the shelves.

Fourteen tracks were laid down in six days - an interpreter was supplied, but Cooder claimed later they mostly communicated "through music". Opening with the four-chord drive of Chan Chan, the band's signature song, Cooder and his cohorts chart a course through Cuba's musical history. Segundo and Ferrer shine whether they are kicking in to the album's more upbeat tempos or searching their souls with the ballads that lament lost times and lost love.

Cooder seemed content to sit back and let the local talent shine. By the time the final beats of closing track La Bayamesa drift away, you feel as if you've been let in on one of the music world's best-kept secrets. How much talent has been tucked away in Cuba for so long?

The awards and the multimillion sales came, and Cooder was able to gather the musicians to record more, both individually and as a unit. And that's the true legacy of the whole project - music that was denied the world through politics was finally set free.

German filmmaker Wim Wenders, who had gone along for the recordings, turned what he saw and heard into an Oscar-nominated documentary that also reveals the magic these people were conjuring up - magic that soon cast a spell over music lovers worldwide.

It seems they captured not only the sounds of Cuba, but also the island's spirit.

A crisis of heart and mind in Cuba

Memories of Underdevelopment (1968)

Sergio Corrieri, Daisy Granados

Director: Tomas Gutierrez Alea

Often described as the best Cuban film ever made, Tomas Gutierrez Alea's classic examination of the country's revolution and its effects focuses on an ordinary man rather than the great battles and leaders - and with a protagonist from the "losing" side as well.

Sergio is a wealthy, disaffected intellectual who put off dreams of becoming a novelist to focus on business, and decides to remain in Havana after the Bay of Pigs crisis in 1961 as family and friends flee for Miami.

Alienated and isolated, literally and philosophically, from the new Cuba and his countrymen, he takes a last drive before his car is requisitioned, contemplates the revolution, fantasises about having sex with his maid, and wanders the streets in terrific POV shots thinking contemptuously in voiceover about his "underdeveloped"(economically) country and its "underdeveloped" (intellectually, artistically) people.

A liaison with a teenaged girl trying to get into acting seems to offer hope of a coming-to-terms with the new order - but then he abandons her.

Alea assembles his film from archived footage, still photos, speeches by Fidel Castro and John F. Kennedy, clips from old movies censored under president Fulgencio Batista, long hand-held shots and fast-cut montages, and more, to create a tremendous collage.

The effect is both to approximate memory and let us - often literally - see through Sergio's eyes. Actor Sergio Corrieri, who played the lead role in the Soviet-Cuban classic Soy Cuba ( I Am Cuba, 1964), emanates boredom and superiority with a detached wit.

The first post-revolution Cuban film to be released in the US, it was a huge critical success: it was named one of 1973's top 10 by New York critics (Alea was denied a visa to pick up awards the film had won under the Trading with the Enemy act).

With Humberto Solas' Lucia (1968) and others, it contributed to a golden era of Cuban filmmaking, supported by the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC).

Alea, from a wealthy family much like his protagonist Sergio, abandoned his family's plans for him to become a lawyer to study film in Italy in the early 1950s. He was a supporter of the revolution and helped co-found the ICAIC.

He enjoyed some late success: Strawberry and Chocolate (1993) was the first Cuban film nominated for an Academy Award, and won the Silver Bear at the 44th Berlin Film Festival. Guantanamera (1995) was his last film before he died in 1996.

This spy's no 007

Our Man in Havana (1958)

by Graham Greene


Like his British compatriot Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, Graham Greene had first-hand experience with espionage. While Fleming glamorised the shadow world, Greene shone light on its absurdities. Rather than clinically effective professionals and a debonair superspy, he populated Our Man in Havana with gullible buffoons and an incompetent chancer.

Greene, who had worked for MI6 during the second world war, heard tales of German agents working in Portugal who filed fictitious reports back to Berlin, dishonestly claiming expenses to boost their incomes. One such spook, a Spanish double-agent, was the inspiration for James Wormold, the hapless protagonist in Greene's comedy thriller.

A vacuum-cleaner salesman in pre-revolutionary Havana, Wormold - abandoned by his wife - is struggling to meet the financial needs of his aspirational daughter Milly, whom he adores. After a cloak-and-dagger encounter with a British secret service recruiter, he accepts an offer to moonlight as a spy. Wormold's instructions are "to keep an eye on things" in Havana.

Wormold, although hopelessly out of his depth, needs the extra money, so he fabricates his reports using information lifted from newspapers. As his confidence grows, he invents a network of phantom agents needing payment, pocketing the cash himself.

The more that is expected of Wormold, the more daring he becomes. Eventually he sketches some vacuum-cleaner spare parts and tells his handlers the drawings are of a secret weapons installation in the mountains.

Galvanised by the discoveries, London sends reinforcements and hi-tech spying gadgetry, and Wormold must race against the clock lest his deception is exposed. At the same time, his fairy tales seem to be coming true: assassins, likely Soviet, appear to be closing in on Wormold and his fictional agents.

Presciently, although Our Man in Havana was accepted as amusingly improbable, even gloriously daft, on its initial publication in 1958, elements of the plot - notably covert weapons installations and aerial surveillance - appear to anticipate the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

It could also be argued that Our Man in Havana predicted the failure of Western intelligence agencies four decades later, when the acceptance of dubious information about weapons of mass destruction led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.