Sunday, February 01, 2015
Buena Vista Social Club – “Amor de Loca Juventud” from Buena Vista Social Club (1997 World Circuit, Nonesuch)


There’s a lot to attack here. The other day my wife and I were in a coffee shop when a song from this record came on (I think it was “Chan Chan“). In fulfillment of my duties as Excecutive Curmudgeon of our blessed union, I began griping about how this is the only Cuban music that most Americans know about or listen to. My wife patiently inquired “well, isn’t that because that project was so well-publicized?” Next thing I knew, I was making dirty jokes at Ry Cooder‘s expense.

That project, it turns out, was the kind of grand cultural exchange that I can really get behind. For the full story, I highly recommend the 1999 Wim Wenders Buena Vista Social Club documentary, but I’ll be brief here: the idea was to get some Cuban son musicians together with some Malian highlife musicians, and, I suppose, Ry Cooder and company.

Before I go on, let me pause, because I’ve already given you all the makings of a pretty excellent Wikipedia rabbit-hole, one in which you learn all about son and its offshoots (including mambo and cha-cha-chá), the difference between a tres and a guitar, and the importance of the Cuban guajeo on African highlife, among other things, and that can be kind of a lot to digest.

The full collaboration, it turns out, was not meant to be, as the highlife musicians (Djelimady Tounkara and Bassekou Kouyate) were not granted visas and so had to stay home (the project as originally envisioned, more or less, was finally carried out in 2010; the wonderful album it produced, Afrocubism, was nominated for a Grammy, so that’s pretty good).

There are, I suppose, a million more stories one could discover about these sessions and the personnel involved (and for that, again, I recommend not only the documentary but also the great biographies on the Nonesuch Records page). My job is to talk about the song. It’s worth noting, though, that the Cuban musicians involved in this project were, among other things, incredibly aged. The lyrics of “Amor de Loca Juventud” are the kind of lament of young love that can only come from years and years of distance.

Musically, it is a song that sounds like every romantic imagining of what the Caribbean is like. It is the cool breeze of the evening as the sun sets over the ocean and an old man looks back upon his life. The melodies are sweet, but in no way saccharine, invoking, if this is possible, all of the best parts of a barbershop quartet. It’s the serenade scene from It’s a Wonderful Life on George and Mary’s wedding night, if someone accidentally spilled a carajillo all over the film canister.

I’m grateful for this record, and I was wrong to complain. I feel fortunate to have been introduced to the likes of Ibrahim Ferrer and Rubén González – legends who are no longer with us – and I have Ry Cooder and a visa mix-up to thank for it. Whether I think there should be other Afro-Cuban artists on heavy rotation at the chain coffee shop is super incidental.

I suppose it’s always been difficult to embargo art, as can be seen by the widespread influence of the music of Cuba. It will be interesting, in these changing times, to see what else the island has to offer.


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