Music, Dreams and Desire

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Mike Gonzalez commemorates the extraordinary music of the Buena Vista Social Club.

The last time I saw Rubén González play piano he finished one tune with a visual joke: running his fingers up the keyboard, he continued beyond the edge of the piano, playing in the air. It was as if his extraordinary dexterity and skill had conquered what was there and needed some new challenges. Bumping into him a little later in a bar near the theatre, I realized how tiny he was, and how bent and arthritic his hands were. It made his artistry even more astonishing.

Rubén learned piano in the 1930s and 1940s, when George Shearing and Art Tatum were leaping the keys and making pianos jump. He moved to Havana from his provincial home in the early 1940s, just in time for the great age of Cuban music. The sextets and septets playing in the clubs and hotels of the capital had brought the son, the traditional Cuban dance rhythm, from the east of the island, and added trumpets to the original percussion and guitars. Then came the big bands, and the beginnings of the traffic between Havana and New York. It was a musical dialogue that brought jazz and son into a kind of long love affair. Dizzy Gillespie played in Cuba and with Machito's Afro-Cuban All Stars.

The other side of Cuban music was the romantic ballads of people like Beny Moré - florid, sentimental stories backed by the sensual music of Oriente.

That was the world that Rubén González came from. But his was a music that belonged to a pre-revolutionary era, and it was eclipsed by 'nueva trova' - the new, visionary, political songs of the new Cuba. The 'old' trova was fuelled and invigorated by the relationship with musicians in the immigrant communities of New York. It was an unexpected effect of the US economic embargo - officially imposed in February 1960 - that the creative, exhilarating musical conversation across the water stopped dead. Some musicians went into exile - others stayed at home. Rubén González was one of them.

You could always hear the groups of ageing men in the characteristic caps and loose guayabera shirts playing in the little local clubs - the 'casas de la trova' - across Cuba. But they seemed to belong to a different era - a barely remembered decadent Havana before the revolution, full of jazz clubs, sleazy bars and American tourists looking for sex. The songs were gentle, romantic, full of naive double entendres and stories of love and loss - though the music was rich and varied, with influences from jazz, son and soul. The musicians grew older and were left in a kind of benign neglect. By the mid-1990s Rubén was a caretaker whose piano had fallen apart, the singer Ibrahim Ferrer was shining shoes, and Omara Portuondo sang to tiny audiences while Compay Segundo, the bassist, lived a kind of errant life of an elderly urban conman.

And then came Buena Vista Social Club, world fame, an album that sold 6 million copies, was played in every bar and restaurant in the world (or so it seemed anyway), and brought these elderly artists fame and late fortune. My very first column looked at the explosion of Cuban music, which began with that album, produced by Ry Cooder. Five years later Compay is dead (at 95) and now so is Rubén (at a mere 84). But the fashion they started has found its own rhythm. There are salsa clubs everywhere, dozens of collections and reissues of Cuban music in the shops, and several groups of elderly musicians enjoying a second (or third) adolescence across the world.

The old Havana implied and evoked in this music has returned to the cultural universe of the west. It's as if that style more than any other defines nostalgia. Perhaps the age of these wonderful musicians was part of their attraction. Wim Wenders' film Buena Vista Social Club fed on that backward glance. It was billed as a documentary, but it was much closer to a studio photograph, carefully staged to create a fiction. Behind Cooder and his son riding through Havana on their motorbike, the city faded into soft focus - the decaying, neglected buildings of the city centre seemed dreamlike, the old cars confirming that sense of returning to the past.

Halfway through the film Ibrahim and Compay are shown wandering through the streets of New York gasping at shop windows, as if they had just returned from deep sleep.

The phenomenal success of the album seems to me to flow from that backward glance, the rediscovery of timeless, sensual places where dreams and desire merged in a comfortable, evocative music. It was not the real Cuba, of course, either then or now - though the Cuban government is happy for the burgeoning tourist industry to enjoy the fruits of this confusion. It was and is a place of the imagination - or perhaps a dream of a time to come. But the soundtrack to it will be poorer for the loss of this virtuoso with the gnarled hands who made his piano melt whenever he played.