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The many uses of jazz

Print edition : Jan 22, 2000 T+T-

A film which celebrates the "discovery" of Cuban jazz musicians by an American musician, also ends up unabashedly promoting the United States as the ultimate cultural Mecca, and subtly undermining Castro's Cuba.

JAYATI GHOSH

THERE are, of course, many kinds of cultural imperialism. The most obvious kind, which is so blatant and so familiar that it is scarcely worth describing yet again, is that of McDonald's and Coca-Cola, of MTV and of Levi jeans - that is, the unidirection al process from the United States to the rest of the world whereby food habits, modes of entertainment and sartorial fashion get determined or influenced.

But there are other, more subtle forms, of this domination, which may be more damaging precisely because they are more intelligent and insidious. This is especially so when the message is almost subliminal, and veiled in art forms which are attractive an d beguiling in themselves. Such a reaction is inspired by a recent film on Cuban music, which is now rapidly achieving cult status.

The jazz musician from California Ry Cooder was first responsible for recording several musicians from Cuba, who used to play many decades ago in the Buena Vista Social Club in Havana, and bringing them together in concerts in Amsterdam and ultimately in Carnegie Hall. The truly wonderful music that the group produced caused the CD recording to become an international bestseller, and then inspired Wim Wenders to produce a documentary film about the experience.

This film (which was shown the 31st International Film Festival of India in New Delhi) in turn has achieved unprecedented popularity among not only jazz aficionados but a much wider range of people. It now has several Web sites and Internet chat groups d evoted to it, and apparently has been routinely received with standing ovations in cinema halls across the world. The positive reaction has come also from many progressive people who are broadly sympathetic to the Cuban social experiment, and for this re ason alone, it merits a closer look.

At many levels, the documentary Buena Vista Social Club is a nimble and happy film, and its popularity is entirely understandable. Technically it is cleverly made, but it rests mainly on the charms of the music and on the personalities of the musicians t hemselves. These musicians, who are remarkably well- preserved for their age (mostly above 80 and some above 90 years of age) are described by Ry Cooder as having "nurtured this very refined and deeply funky music in an atmosphere sealed off from the fal lout of a hyper-organised and noisy world. In the time of about a 150 years, they have developed a beautiful ensemble concept that works like lightning."

SO far so good: the music is delightful, the people portrayed are unusual and full of character, and the simple plot is heartwarming enough, describing the sudden rise to international fame of a group of ageing musicians all but forgotten in their own co untry. So what could be the problem? Why carp at so much enjoyment and goodwill, and suggest less benevolent influences in the film?

The reason for discomfiture lies in the way this story is presented, and in the many and continuous allusions in the film which point effectively to a certain interpretation of present-day Cuba as well as a glorification of the U.S. as the desirable cent re of world culture. The de facto hero of the film is the American Ry Cooder, who, with his son Joachim, is in most of the frames, performing (sometimes inexplicably) along with the Cuban musicians and is a constant presence invoked with much grat itude by the other (Cuban) protagonists.

Whether in the behaviour of the characters or in the way the film is narrated, the impression one gets of Cooder is consequently much in the grand manner of Stanley, Livingstone and other 19th century explorers who "discovered" new frontiers for Western civilisation - the frontier in this case being a cultural tradition neglected in its own homeland. The reasons for this neglect are of course not specified, but meanwhile the camera dwells frequently on other expressions of neglect in Havana: the decayin g villas on the dowdy avenues, the quaint old cars which disappeared from the streets of "modern" cities several decades ago, the peeling paint and torn curtains of the interiors of homes and studios, the general sense of "backwardness" in material terms .

The cars in particular - huge, dilapidated, archaic - seem to have obsessed the director, and the symbolism of these images is not always innocent or benign. What is interesting is that meanwhile, nothing in the film (which is after all, a documentary an d therefore a comment on real life) gives any sense of the factors that could have contributed to such relative deprivation or decay, such as the many decades of very severe economic sanctions by the U.S. itself. Nor is there really any recognition of th e social and economic context which could have allowed so many very old musicians to be in a state of health and preservation in which they can still perform. Instead, the film only stresses their previous social neglect.

But where the director plays his hand openly is in the section of the film devoted to the performance at the Carnegie Hall in New York, which is presented as the culmination of the dreams and aspirations of all the Cuban musicians. The Cubans in turn are shown to be innocent country bumpkins overcome by the glitter and grandeur of New York City, gazing in disbelief at the cornucopia of the shop windows, amazed at the wonders of modern technology such as the possibility of long distance telephone calls, and wishing desperately that they could bring their families also to revel in such sights as the Statue of Liberty and Radio City Music Hall. Over and over again come the words of praise: "beautiful, beautiful, beautiful..."

IT is not just that the film leaves out any equivalent reaction on the part of the Cooders, father and son, when confronted with the majesty of the seafront in Havana or the appeal of the sun-drenched Cuban streets. It is that these images of the wonders of the capitalist core are immediately juxtaposed with scenes from contemporary Cuba that are now openly ironic: painted slogans such as "This Revolution will never die" splashed across decrepit walls, a banner honouring Karl Marx with letters falling o ff, more broken down cars, and so on.

After all that, the effervescent display of the Cuban flag on the stage at Carnegie Hall in effect becomes the celebration of the pre-socialist culture of the country, and a subtle critique of the socialist system which currently controls it. Not for not hing is this film wildly popular among the Cuban emigrants in Miami and other parts of the U.S.

The subliminal message, then, is that of the innate superiority of capitalism in both creating certain cultural artefacts and recognising and preserving other cultural traditions. At one level, this message is not far removed from the imperial signal sen t out by the architecture of Lutyens' Delhi, simultaneously proclaiming the grandeur of the ruler while patronising and incorporating the ruled.

This may be an overly harsh and cynical response to what is after all a film that is fun to watch, about attractive people who produce enjoyable music. And it may not even reflect the true intentions of the director, who has after all produced very sensi tive films about the U.S. in the past. Interpretations of the film, as indeed the making of it, are in that sense prisoners of our times, and can too easily fall prey to the dominant ethos.

In our highly charged and self-conscious times, nothing is necessarily what it seems, and the ability of hegemonising cultures to use different means to push their message cannot be underestimated. It is sad, then, to reflect that the people and music of a proud and brave culture can unwittingly be presented in ways that can undermine it.