Cultural Bulletin
Cultural Bulletin is a quarterly magazine that provides an international view of creative work. We look to film, music, design and art as signifiers of our cultural moment.

Revisiting: Buena Vista Social Club

Director: Wim Wenders


Screened as part of the ¡Viva! Festival from Home, Manchester.

Has there ever been more visible passion and joy for music than in Wim Wenders’ wonderfully spirited 1999 documentary Buena Vista Social Club?

Wenders follows the story of his friend, renowned American guitarist Ry Cooder, as he reunites a group of extremely talented Cuban musicians who go under the collective name Buena Vista Social Club. Through the documentary, it’s clear that Cooder is in awe of those he has reassembled - there are moments where he can't contain his delight at the music he hears.

The documentary centres around 4 performances from 1998 in Amsterdam and the Carnegie Hall in New York. Wenders cuts the performances with footage back in Cuba: the musicians jamming together in rehearsals, the streets of Havana, workers rolling cigars and creating lutes in a workshop. There’s a moment when one member of the band is walking down a busy street and starts singing - before you know it, others are following her and joining in. It makes for a delightful and authentic look at the origins of Cuban music - music of the heart and soul.

We begin by focusing on two members of the group: Cuban music legends Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo. We learn that Ferrer was an orphan from the age of 12 who dropped out of school and Portuondo is the daughter of a famous baseball player. Both are from very different upbringings, but when they perform the bolero Silencio together, with tears in their eyes, there’s only a deep respect for each other, their country and the power of their music.

From here, Wenders staggers the introduction of the other musicians, each one supremely suave and talented. Guitarist Company Segundo, for example, smokes cigars in his trademark Panama hat whilst telling us that, ‘As long as their is blood in my veins, I will always love women.’ We also catch him divulging his numerous cures for hangovers. He was 90 at the time. In one exquisitely uplifting scene, Rubén González Fontanills, a pianist, plays for young ballerinas and gymnasts as they practice together. They eventually crowd around his piano, smiling and absorbed.

One of the American musicians, who teamed up with the Cubans for the revival, uses the phrase ‘pure musical energy’. What a joyful and heartfelt energy it is. TS