I didn’t like Ry Cooder’s Buena Vista Social Club. I also didn’t like Paul Simon’s Graceland, the different beast from Buena Vista Social Club that it is. There is something discomforting to me in white people’s incursions into the “authentic” music of some darker-skinned culture. But I think this is a silly, even reactionary, feeling. Simon’s record felt sort of smarmy and slightly paternal. Cooder’s collection on the other hand felt distinctly celebratory. But I bet the same people who bought and loved Graceland have a new copy of Buena Vista Social Club on their shelves. I suppose I tend to attempt easy and reductive class analyses of consumption. Regardless, without either of these albums, middle-class Americans would not have the opportunity to expand their musical spectrums. Cultural imperialism is a two-way street. America can send its culture out to the rest of the world, and it can bring back and Americanize those cultural products from the realm of the Other. We make fetishes for consumption, which truly is the bottom line.
Now let me make myself clear. The music collected on Cuba Esencial is the backbone of Buena Vista Social Club. This CD collects a wide range of Cuban music, most of which features numerous musicians from Buena Vista Social Club. In fact, Buena Vista Social Club seems to be the defining moment of Cuban music in this release—Nigel Williamson’s liner notes map out this entire collection with reference to the artists’ appearance on Cooder’s collection. This isn’t entirely surprising since Williamson also penned some liner notes for Buena Vista Social Club.
My cynicism aside, Cuba Esencial is a brilliant collection that covers more musical ground then one could imagine this small island holds—from Josephine Baker’s honeyed voice swirling in front of strings and flutes to the tropical bird noises flitting through Los Zafiros’s Bossa Cubana. While I am in no way an expert on Cuban music, I found this collection much more satisfying than Cooder’s production. But, undoubtedly, without Cooder’s work, the tapes that Cuba Esencial samples would still be gathering dust in the state-owned Egrem studio in Cuba.
Cuba is our neighbor and we have erected a monstrous fence to keep our unsavory neighbors off of our lawn. Cooder crossed this fence, now perhaps the cultural floodgates can open. This collection, along with the others in the Cuba Libre series (Beny More, Irakere, Los Van Van, and Cuba Eterno), may just be the hopeful signs of the coming cultural breach in the political fence. If you like Buena Vista Social Club, buy this CD. If you think you might like Buena Vista Social Club, but dislike Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, or even David Byrne and their musical brand of “ethnic” discovery, buy this CD. I guarantee your happiness.