Jazz Ambassadors

How the Buena Vista Social Club helped thaw relations between the U.S. and Cuba

I'm listening to "Cubana Be, Cubana Bop" right now, Dizzy Gillespie's terrific 1947 musical alloy of traditional jazz, Latin rhythms, intricate drumming, and Afro-Cuban chanting. The mix of American jazz with muscular, otherworldly sounds gave us something altogether fresh, simultaneously rough and sophisticated, captivating and unique—much as foreigners have seen Cuba in the intervening decades.

When the U.S. government broadened the definition of who could legally travel to Cuba in the late 1990s, an overflow of applications came gushing in. While the number of American tourists ignoring U.S. strictures on travel to the island continued to increase, a whole new breed started to appear: "study groups." My favorite was a flock of undergraduate English majors from a frost-belt college who came to the sunny Caribbean in the dead of winter. They were the usual bunch—unfailingly polite, hair adolescent orange, and hopelessly monolingual. They were in Cuba, they averred, to learn about Hemingway in Havana. And this is how these American college students studied Hemingway in Havana: every morning after finishing their hotel's breakfast buffet, they returned to their rooms, changed into their swimsuits, picked up a towel and a Hemingway paperback or two, and descended to the pool, where they lay down in lounge chairs to study Hemingway in Havana.

By the time Raúl Castro and Barack Obama announced rapprochement, most Americans had softened to allowing Cuba into their family of friends. This attitude didn't just appear overnight; a number of events, mostly nonpolitical, had to take place first. One was baseball. In the spring of 1999 the Baltimore Orioles, after months of negotiating, traveled to Cuba for a game against Cuba's best. I wasn't a huge fan of Fidel Castro's, but to see him emerge from the home team dugout with the Cuban lineup card and lumber across the infield to hand it over to the umpires before some 45,000 fans at the Latin American Stadium, well, I got all choked up. Both countries' flags rose above center field and the two national anthems played—in our case, what seemed to be an old, scratchy 78-rpm rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner." Fidel took his box seat behind home plate next to the then baseball commissioner Bud Selig and they watched the Orioles beat Cuba, 3–2.

The visit by Pope John Paul II contributed to the rinsing away of hostilities. "Let Cuba open itself to the world," the Pope implored, "and the world open itself to Cuba."

What made most Americans aware of Cuba, though, was the saga of Elián González, the tyke who survived a motorboat ride from Cuba. Elián was placed in the custody of distant relatives in Miami despite the wishes of his father, who remained in Cuba. The Elián saga tore apart the Cuban American community while the rest of the country watched the boy treated as political bait. Beyond South Florida's Cuban American community, there was relief when the kid was eventually returned to his father.

These three events—baseball, the Pope's visit and the Elián González case—brought aspects of Cuba to Americans that went far beyond the embargo. Yet it was the improbable success of a handful of aging musicians that exposed a Cuba few knew and expanded the country's audiences far beyond its bashers or its cheerleaders. The musicians went by the name of the Buena Vista Social Club, their music came from the 1950s and earlier, and their appeal was resolutely apolitical. On a visit to Havana, the American musician and producer Ry Cooder, not finding the musicians he sought, instead teamed up with Cuban producer Juan de Marcos to produce an album of exquisite sounds from another era.

I maintain that it was the phenomenon of the Buena Vista Social Club—its worldwide concert tour, German cineaste Wim Wenders's documentary film, and of course its albums—that ultimately eased relations between the two countries and made backdoor diplomacy more possible. The last survivor of the original group was singer Omara Portuondo, the only one of the bunch who could rightly claim individual fame exclusive of the others. Born in 1930 during the growing tumult of the dictator Geraldo Machado's regime, Portuondo became an international sensation partly because of her enduring showmanship and partly because of her good fortune in having been knighted into the realm of the Buena Vista Social Club. Over the years she became as well known in her home country as Barbra Streisand was in hers. The Buena Vista album Portuondo sang on sold 1.1 million copies and won a Grammy in 1998. The film received an Oscar nomination.

After the group's enormously successful performances Portuondo toured the States, this time as the headliner. She appeared in Los Angeles with Barbarito Torres, a laúd player, then returned to Hollywood for a salsa and Latin jazz festival. We spoke in the middle of this tour.

Her voice sounded stronger as a solo act, I said, than it had been the previous year when she was part of the Buena Vista ensemble. She considered this and agreed, adding, "It's etiquette. I was one element in a larger show. This time it's my show, and I don't have those restrictions."

Havana's Cabaret Tropicana has always been Portuondo's home. Best known for its revue of high-kicking and great-looking dancers in revealing glittery costumes, the Tropicana also has showcased major Cuban singing talent. It was there at the end of World War II that a shy fifteen-year-old Portuondo would watch her sister Haydée rehearse. One day the troupe needed a last-minute replacement, and Omara filled in.

"I love the Tropicana. I have a permanent invitation to perform there. I opened for Nat 'King' Cole at the Tropicana and introduced him. He impressed me so much; he was a lovely black man in a white suit." Portuondo broke into "Unforgettable," imitating Cole for a few lines. She also recalled Tony Bennett at the pre-Castro Tropicana and at the Sans Souci. "I saw Sarah Vaughan, too, but I never sang with her. She was wonderful."

Big-band music from the United States inspired Portuondo and other Cuban musicians back then. "Glenn Miller and also the Dorsey brothers influenced our music, including boleros, a mix that gave birth to filin," a soft, crooning romantic style that achieved its peak popularity in the 1950s. "The cha-cha-chá was also influenced by North American music, and so was Pérez Prado and the mambo."

Although Portuondo is anything but political, historical events helped shape her career. She was performing in Florida with her sister when the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis erupted. She returned home; Haydée remained. Because so many entertainers in the following years preferred life abroad and far fewer foreigners performed in Cuba, it was easier for those who stayed, Portuondo among them, to advance their careers.

Yet just when her solo career was to be launched in October 1967, the death of revolutionary Che Guevara in Bolivia sent the nation into official mourning and closed the nightclubs for a spell. Then, in 1970, when Fidel Castro exhorted the nation to produce ten million tons of sugar cane, troupes from the Tropicana, including Portuondo, and other cultural institutions, such as the Ballet Nacional, traveled the countryside entertaining the cane cutters.

I have a theory, I told her, that the U.S. embargo has actually helped Cuban culture, that its authenticity owes its preservation, in part, to U.S. foreign policy.

Portuondo's answer turned my statement inside out.

"That's true, but it wasn't North American foreign policy. It was what we did at home. After the triumph of the revolution, the new Ministry of Culture made a sweeping effort to rescue all the different cultures from throughout the island. They established casas de cultura in every province, trained art instructors, created new ballet schools and folkloric groups, and gave free classes. That's what preserved our culture. I taught popular Cuban dance for a while after the revolution."

Portuondo, who has been compared with Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf in their primes, had recently released an album for her North American tour. "A lot of Latinos come to my shows," she said with respect and surprise. "The Latinos join in the singing and clapping, and they dance in the aisles."

Portuondo moves about on stage as if leading an aerobics class. A British newspaper complimented her "regal presence, accentuated by a considerable sexual magnetism." Her fingers are long and narrow, her mocha skin as smooth as the Caribbean the day after a hurricane.

Musical director Jesús "Aguaje" Ramos, who led Omara's onstage band of some dozen musicians, playfully refers to her as "la más sexi," a nickname he encourages the audience to call out as well. "I'm not sure if I'm la sexi diva," she later mischievously confessed, "or la diva sexi."

Earlier that day I pulled out a thirty-year-old record album of hers I'd bought from a sidewalk vendor in Havana the previous year for a dollar, and she went through it commenting on each arrangement and songwriter. Then I produced a 1990 CD of hers that shows her wearing an Afro that was, frankly, not flattering.

"But I don't use anything artificial in my hair and I never have, not even a straightener. Look. It's all mine." And with that she suddenly yanked off the elastic band that had kept her hair in a neat bun and unleashed her lush, black hair in two thick rolls as if creating a V. Each hand held one roll, extended to their fullest high above her head. "See?"

I also produced a picture of her father, taken when he was a star infielder for Almendares, one of two perennially popular Havana baseball teams. Like many Cuban standouts, Bartolo Portuondo played in the Negro National League in the States after its founding in 1920.

"Look!" she cried out to her son Ariel, who served as her road manager. "It's your grandfather!" He led the Cuban league in stolen bases one year, and he played for the home team when an American squad starring Babe Ruth barnstormed through the island. "I used to go see my dad play at the Tropical stadium. He became a coach after his playing days were over."

To Portuondo, who has performed with popular Cuban groups ranging from Cuarteto Las D'Aida in the 1950s to the contemporary NG La Banda, there is no one "golden age" of Cuban music.

"It's cyclical," she said, moving her arms in a wide circle. "There have been various moments of gold in Cuban music. We're at the top of the cycle again right now because we keep inventing as we draw a lot from the past.

The Buena Vista boom has been remarkable not only for those of us who are part of it but for all orquestas that play this type of music.

"Our international schedules are so full it was only a couple of months ago that all of the Buena Vista Social Club could finally get together to play for the Cuban public. We performed at the Karl Marx Theater. We had a packed house with hundreds more in the streets. There were people of all ages. It was incredibly emotional." Their final show took place May 2016.

For all Portuondo's international travels and notoriety, what I found most revealing was not her stage show or the enthusiastic reception international audiences have given her. It was her wristwatch. It's always set to Havana time.

From Cuba, Hot and Cold by Tom Miller. © 2017 Tom Miller. Reprinted with permission from the University of Arizona Press.

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