In today’s globalized and mostly capitalist world the effects of musical diplomacy can be overlooked. After all, most any music can be listened to and consumed by anyone most anywhere in the world. Cultural exchanges (albeit by P2P or iTunes) occur regularly, efficiently and subconsciously. Despite its nuanced prevalence, though, profound impacts through musical exchange have been considered for centuries and could still provide opportunities today, with timely releases like the Buena Vista Social Club’s 1997 eponymous debut album and most recently their live recording, At Carnegie Hall.
First, it pays to revisit the precedents of what Thomas Jefferson once framed as “reconciling to [his countrymen] the respect of the world” through “the exchange of ideas, information, art and other aspects of culture,” beginning with Van Cliburn. In 1958, the young Texan pianist won the inaugural International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow—a contest conceived to demonstrate the U.S.S.R.’s cultural superiority. Awarding Cliburn first prize, after a legendary eight-minute standing ovation, required Nikita Khrushchev’s personal approval and warranted a New York City ticker tape parade, the only one ever held for a musician’s triumph.
At the same time, and extending throughout the Cold War, radio personality Willis Connover—host of Music USA—was perhaps our preeminent cultural ambassador, by way of his nightly broadcasts. Connover himself perfectly described the potency of jazz as both a cultural and civic export for America:
Jazz is a cross between total discipline and anarchy. The musicians agree on tempo, key, and chord structure, but beyond this everyone is free to express himself. This is jazz. And this is America … It’s a musical reflection of the way things happen in America. We’re not apt to recognize this over here, but people in other countries can feel this element of freedom.
The impact on former Czech President and civil rights leader Vaclav Havel was undeniable: “listening to jazz kept hopes of freedom alive in the darkest days of oppression in communist Czechoslovakia.” The liberating effects of rock ‘n’ roll music under socialist regimes were also beautifully realized in Tom Stoppard’s latest play, Rock ‘n’ Roll, using the psychedelic Czechoslovak-rockers Plastic People of the Universe as its underlying musical protagonist.
And earlier this spring, the New York Philharmonic was shipped to Pyongyang for a concert series in North Korea aimed at provoking benevolent diplomatic ties. But its origins are already slightly disingenuous, compared with true indigenous musical exchange, as the Philharmonic’s repertoire is largely European classical music; it represents another continent’s and another era’s ideals. In this light, the February performances were strikingly symbolic of the diminishing attempt at musical diplomacy, or “soft power”, in the last 20 years by the United States.
Which finally brings me back to the beloved Buena Vista Social Club. The story behind the Grammy award-winning studio album is that producers Ry Cooder and Nick Gold had intended to record sessions between some Cuban and Malian musicians in Havana with bandleader Juan de Marcos Gonzalez. But after visa difficulties with the African musicians, they decided to go ahead and record some Cuban son music with local musicians instead—a genre as representative of the Afro-Cuban umbrella term as any. Six days and fourteen tracks later, the album as listeners would come to know it was recorded, with polyrhythmic melting pots, rich harmonies, and pastoral Cuban melodies all encompassed by a tacit authenticity.
Despite the album’s sudden mainstream success, difficulties stemming from the United States’ archaic Cuban trade embargo ensued. Cooder was fined $25,000 by the government for violating the Trading with the Enemy Act—in which Cuba is the only remaining prohibited country—and the musicians were allowed to accept only per diem fees for their US performances, including At Carnegie Hall.
As one of best selling international albums of all time, its cultural impact resonated differently on different shores. Americans dreamed of a lauded and romantic past ideal resuscitated while Cubans remarked that son trios never declined, one only had to look for them. Tourism increased on the island, though, and the album shined a refreshing light on Cuba with Buena Vista Social Club serving as a brand name for solo albums and tours by many of the album’s players. International tours also followed, further serving the album’s diplomatic potential. Wim Wenders documented much of the reaction by listeners and musicians alike—including their 1998 Carnegie Hall performance—in his 1999 documentary film of the same name.
At Carnegie Hall staunchly carries with it the brand characteristics that launched this cultural exchange. When the group opens with its calling card, “Chan Chan”, the audience cheers like at the opening of a Beatles setlist, not the geriatric ensemble present. Later, the Cuban son “El Cuarto de Tula” roars with trumpets and a feisty timbale rhythm. Singing lead, Eliades Ochoa (simply known as the one in the cowboy hat) has a throaty timbre and vibrato that dilutes the otherwise ferocious pace. Near the end of the song, the audience wildly applauds Barbarito Torres’ devastatingly quick-fingered solos on the laud (a type of twelve-string Cuban lute).
Predictably, the piano playing by Ruben Gonzalez is exquisite on the group’s title song, “Buena Vista Social Club.” The melody around which Gonzalez plays variations and improvises was the “mascot tune” of the original Buena Vista club. Here his playing is at once sentimental and firm, floral and simplistic. One intangible quality of Gonzalez’s playing, which resonates all over the album, is a fundamental vulnerability. It personifies the piano, giving it warmth and feeling, so within Carnegie Hall’s space his audible emotions seize the space.
We hear this quality again in the intro to the next track, “Dos Gardenias”, and throughout Gonzalez’s accompaniment. But while he keeps the bolero’s delicate bounce intact, singer Ibrahim Ferrer steals the show with his soaring decades-tested tenor. Despite the large concert hall, the intimacies of a Cuban social club are intact in Ferrer’s voice, described by Cooder as “the Cuban Nat King Cole”.
As the ensemble’s only female member, Omara Portuondo adds some feminine seduction to the setlist on “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas”, another bolero that quickly picks up steam and ends with a rich ensemble sound. She also duets with Ferrer on “Veinte Anos”, their voices the opposites on a tonal spectrum but with aged beauty that speaks to the song’s title.
Gonzalez again shows remarkable touch in the second half of the program on “Almendra”, a song absent from the film and original album. The first half of the song is dominated by agile solos from trumpet player Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal over a relaxed but nonetheless decorated rhythm. Gonzalez plays articulate transcending passages before washing them away in flurries of half-illusory notes, before inserting a small Rachmaninoff allusion to cap off one particular solo section. Cooder’s electric guitar also ambles throughout, syncopating evenly with the bass.
More laud playing convenes on “El Carretero” where Torres contributes beautifully woven counter-melodies in between scintillating Randy Rhoads-speed lines in his solos. The song is a guajira, or country lament, Ochoa exuding pain and loss throughout.
During the Cold War, an ulterior motive lined displays of “soft power”, thus making it unclear whether the cultural propaganda was shaping the Cold War or vice versa. Through the inadvertent musical diplomacy of the Buena Vista Social Club, there is no alternative motive and no nationalist display veiled as arts, but instead a merging and sharing of cultures and ideas, America and Cuba representative in doing and producing positively together and all in the name of humanity.
Just as Connover, in his radio show, promoted American democratic values and jazz simultaneously, Cooder, in his proscribed collaborations, defies antiquated cultural constraints towards Cuba, promoting social understanding and offering an intimate snapshot of culture. Moreover many international jazz fans owe their interest to Connover and the same could be said with regards to Afro-Cuban music and Cooder.
Most importantly, in a time of fleeting American hegemony and presidential elections, one can’t help but recognize the timeliness of a Buena Vista Social Club reprise and the ascent of a fresh foreign policy platform. Perhaps we’ll have a new Buena Vista album to usher in the new decade of humanitarian American-Cuban diplomacy.