Just as we're nearing the end of the century, it's curious how musical revivals are underway. From the swing thing to old school funk, there's a nostalgia engulfing society that is bringing back long forgotten or ignored musical territories. That's certainly the case with Cuban music. Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club, now the biggest selling Cuban record of all time, has brought back the Son, and the 1900s will surprisingly end as they began - with the sage wisdom and melancholy melodies of the Son Cubano.
"I'm very happy," comments producer Juan De Marcos González, who heads the Afro-Cuban All-Stars, a cross section of legendary veteran musicians he recruited to work with Cooder for the World Circuit recordings. "After 1959, Cuban music was sadly lost to the world. We kept making music and it kept evolving, giving rise to new genres but we were isolated in a circle within ourselves."
In the beginning, the new Cuban government sought to rescue its folkloric past. Through its ministry of culture, prominence was given to a variety of ensembles and troupes buried in the ceremonies of their communities. But the glorious legacy of the Son, with its eastern island roots in the mountains of Oriente and its dance urbanization in Santiago and Havana, got lost in the shuffle. With the tourist trade gone and competition from younger bands playing a new musical fusion, elders faded into the walls of their barrios.
That's what happened to master musician Compay Segundo, who at 91 is enjoying a blast of fame thanks to De Marcos and Cooder. A pioneer who grew up in Santiago listening to and playing with the famous Trio Matamoros, his current album - Lo Mejor De La Vida (The Best of Life/Nonesuch) - embroiders that classic sound of the rhythmic pulse of bongos, the montuno of the folkloric tres guitar, and a melancholy trumpet intertwining with verses drowning in epics of love and life.
"Yo conocí el son (I knew the son)," Segundo explained to me in Havana in 1997, "Cuando era muy cortito y sabrosón (when it was short and tasty). That's what we used to say (laughs). But as a cultural development, and I came up in the beginning of this century when people played a simple son. It has advanced thanks to great composers who integrated it into boleros and made it more beautiful."
In its heyday the son was the rage. Its urbanization in the '20s created a truly distinct Cuban musical identity that grew in popularity. But by the '40s it was ready for another...