Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Grilling Music: The Buena Vista Social Club

It's been my experience that most people in this country have an impression of Cuba that comes from all the wrong sources: Castro, Guantanamo, and those douchebag 19 year olds in Che Guevara t-shirts. Yet look in the right places, and you'll find that it's one of the most interesting places imaginable. In keeping with last Sunday's Man B Que contribution (Cuban Sandwiches), I'd like to spotlight a group from that country that got their shot at fame almost too late.

The Buena Vista Social Club, if you haven't seen the documentary, was a collection of legendary (and mostly quite elderly) Cuban musicians named after a long-defunct Havana social club. They were brought together by Los Angeles guitarist Ry Cooder, and their renown eventually landed them a show in Amsterdam, a gig at Carnegie Hall, and an Academy Award. They also won a Grammy, but really, so fucking what? Milli Vanilli won a Grammy. Here's a video of them performing in Crete, which is apparently nuts for Lain music. It's enjoyable once the camera stops moving around - I kept expecting the Cloverfield monster to attack. The problem with the Buena Vista Social Club is whoever is posting their high quality videos on YouTube also disables embedding. Dick.

Their music, if you're only accustomed to flipping past La Rey 107.9, can be surprisingly understated. It still carries the passion and emotion characteristic of Spanish-language music, but often it's more quiet rumbling than full-on bombast. "Chan Chan," the first song off of the one (and only) Buena Vista Social Club album, is a perfect example of the understated tone.

That slow burning sound is absolutely perfect for lighting the grill just as the sun goes down. This is excellent beer in hand music, which is the universal Man B Que measure of musical superiority. There are only two real problems:

(a) They're nearly always, as you saw in the report above, used as a political symbol - either by those filthy Reds (WOLVERIIIIINES!!!) or by those who point out that Cuban music is largely identifiable as a pre-Castro instution.

(b) Their success unwittingly inspired the NPR set to become dickish about obscure world music. It made an entire generation far more punchable.

You can't really blame them for either, so ignore all that and enjoy with sizzling meat and a cold beer. You won't be disappointed.

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