In 1997, Ry Cooder worked with World Circuit, a record label based in London, to record some of Cuba’s great musicians. The idea was to capture their hits of the 1940s and 1950s. That was the time before the revolution, when Cuba was a swell place for rich American vacationers. It wasn’t as swell a place for the average Cuban, which is why people supported Castro in the first place. Buena Vista Social Clubbecame a hit; it offered some of the best songs of a place and a time that was fading from American memory. It was fresh.
Of course, Castro didn’t exactly make life better, and Cubans now faced one huge constraint: a trade embargo put in place by the U.S. government. The American policy was put in place with the hope that Cubans would be upset enough to overthrow Castro, but that didn’t happen This year, the Obama administration announced the lifting of some sanctions. Relations are far from normal, but Cuba is part of the zeitgeist once again.
This year, World Circuit introduced Lost And Found. The collection includes 14 songs recorded by Compay Segundo, Omara Portuondo, Eliades Ochoa, Ibrahim Ferrar, Cachaito Lopez, Miguel Diaz, Ruben Gonzalez, Jesus Ramos, and Calunga. These are recordings from the Buena Vista Social Club sessions that did not make the original, some additional recordings made after those sessions, and live tracks from Buena Vista Social Club tours. The problem with this is that it doesn’t add to the original. The best songs went into the first recording. This seems like more of a museum piece than music to enjoy in the here and now — or great background music for a Havana Nights party, if you don’t have a copy of the first CD.
When a country’s borders are closed, any glimpses of culture are unduly exciting. South Africa’s borders were de facto closed during Apartheid because no one wanted to be seen as supporting the regime. Paul Simon’s Graceland became a big seller in part because it exposed people to music they would not have heard otherwise. Every generation may throw a hero up the pop charts, but so far, there are no South African stars following behind Ladysmith Black Mombazo unless you want to count Dave Matthews and his thoroughly American approach to pop.
Cuba has more in common culturally to the United States than South Africa does, thanks to geographic proximity, immigration, and Ernest Hemingway. There is some lingering nostalgia for the big bands, rum-based drinks, and hot nights shown in movies, but that’s not what we really missed out on during the embargo. We missed what was new in Cuba, because the old music already existed. Buena Vista Social Club reminded us of what Cuba once was, with better quality recordings than the LPs from the 1950s. Lost and Found isn’t new; it’s an addition for the fan.