Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Class: Buena Vista Social Club

Empanadas de Queso y Espinaca
Mango, Avocado & Red Onion Salad with Papaya-Seed Dressing
Roasted Chicken, Versailles Style w/Black Beans & Rice and Fried Plantains
Coconut Rum Flan

Class was great tonight. I want to thank everyone who came out. Also, I just spent a few days up in Dallas for the premiere of the new documentary I co-wrote, OK Buckaroos, about singer/songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker at the Dallas International Film Festival. All was great - two sold out performances! My favorite moment was during the Q&A when someone asked Jerry Jeff a question about which "Green Frog Cafe" writer Guy Clark was referring to in the song "Desperados Waiting for a Train." Jerry Jeff pulled out his cell phone and gave Guy a call.

Growing up in New York City in the 1960's, you didn't need to know a lick of Spanish to be hip to the sounds of what was known as Latin Boogaloo, which was this magical stew of Cuban son and mambo rhythms with a splash of American soul music, played by both Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians in New York. Songs like El Pito (I'll Never Go Back to Georgia) by Joe Cuba (who was actually Puerto Rican) and (Cuban) Mongo Santamaria's cover of Herbie Hancock's Watermelon Man were played on AM radio in rotation along side The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Much later when I was living in San Francisco, I got to see performers like Celia Cruz and the Fania All-Stars on tour, as well as regularly enjoy SF local Mexican-American salsa legend, Pete Escovedo.

The point of all this is to say I love the Afro-Cuban-Latin beat and have since I first started listening to music. When the Buena Vista Social Club's album appeared in 1996, I was on it like black beans on rice. I am so grateful to have gotten to see over the years, not only the Buena Vista Social Club (BVSC) perform live, but Ibrahim Ferrer with Reuben Gonzelez, and Omara Portuando on their solo tours. I've also gotten to see Ry Cooder play several times in concert.

And I apologize for a small rant here, but whenever Cuba is discussed politics gets involved. But from my reading, regardless of who's been running that place, going back into the Spanish colonial governments, the Cuban people have had it pretty rough. And whatever government comes next, I sadly believe the struggles from which this beautiful music comes from will still be with the people.

But what gets me is that there are those who care not for music, in fact, it frightens them. But this is nothing new, there are always these types of people throughout history. I say this because we should take a moment to consider the significance while watching the BVSC at Carnegie Hall in the movie, that it was just about 20 years earlier, in 1978, when a group of Bay of Pigs (i.e., CIA trained) veterans, known as the Omega 7, bombed Avery Fisher Hall, located just a few blocks away from Carnegie Hall, to prevent the Cuban group Orquesta Aragón from performing there. They were going to kill musicians over politics. Musicians. I'm sorry, but that's crazy talk to me. If music is that scary to you, I think you need to calm down, right now.

But enough of this. We got a movie to watch and food to make.....

Buena Vista Social Club is available for viewing online either via Hulu (for FREE), Amazon or NetFlix. You can also rent at home via NetFlix, or purchase a copy via Amazon (same links).


"If we'd followed the way of possessions, we would have disappeared long ago. We Cubans are very fortunate in that regard. We are a small country, but we're strong. We have learned to resist both the good and the bad."

Our story actually begins in the late 70's, when Juan de Marcos González, a son of a popular Cuban vocalist, decided to turn away from the rock 'n' roll he was listening to and playing, and founded Sierra Maestra, a big band dedicated to playing classic Cuban "Son" music from the 1920's. The group became popular both in Cuba and touring Europe, recording over a dozen albums to date. Around the same time that González started his group, (though they didn't meet then) musician Ry Cooder and his wife snuck into Cuba by boat to explore the music scene and he got hooked on it.

In 1984, film director Wim Wenders brought in Cooder to do the soundtrack for his film Paris, Texas. "Because that was such a good experience for both of us," Wenders said, "we stayed very good friends but refrained from working with each other for a while. It was such a perfect experience that one can only be afraid to ever do that again."

Then, in 1994, Juan de Marcos was mixing the Sierra Maestra's Dundunbanza! album in London where he also worked for Nick Gold's World Circuit Records and pitched Gold an idea for a new project. "I told him about the idea I had for a record that would bring together the principal figures of Cuban music, the people who made history especially during the 50s, who were still alive and in Cuba. That's where the idea of Afro-Cuban All-Stars came from," he recalled. "At the same time, there was an album called Talking Timbuktu that Ry Cooder had made with Ali Farka Touré, an album that sold a lot, and Nick Gold had the idea to make a new album with Cooder.... [W]e thought we'd mix the [Cuban son] with Ry Cooder's American slide guitar and a couple of African musicians who'd play instruments like the kora, etc." So the plan was to do two albums in Havana at the same time.

So in March of 1996, Cooder, his wife, and this time with their son/percussionist, Joaquim Cooder, snuck back into Cuba, this time by way of Mexico. But when they arrived at the airport they were met by Nick Gold who had some bad news: "Well, the Africans can't come. They're lost in transit, we don't know where they are." They actually had visa problems and were waylaid in Paris. Cooder shrugged, "[A]ll right, we'll dig in here. We'll just go for it," he told Gold. After all, Juan de Marcos had already pulled together his musicians for the All-Stars recording. "We'll make a 'Son' album," Cooder explained. "They had found Rubén González, like a miracle. Compay was in town. And it just sort of began to take shape and within three days, we had our room set."

"These were people I'd heard on records over the years, but I had no idea whether they were living or dead," Cooder recalls in the film. "Rubén González hadn't even had a piano in 10 years - hadn't really been playing. They told us he had arthritis and couldn't play - of course, that wasn't true. And this is an example of the kind of luck and good fortune that you have to have to find out that so many of these people are still alive and well, although forgotten."

Does anybody do bolero anymore?” Cooder asked Juan de Marcos, who was now the musical director/band leader of the new project. “He said, 'There’s only one. He’s hard to find but I’ll bring him in.’

I went to Ibrahim's house and he was cleaning shoes [for a living]," Juan de Marcos recalled. "I said, 'To me, you're the best singer and I'd like to have you on my album. "He thought I was joking but I told him, 'You have to believe me and come with me to the studio.'"

I didn’t want to go,” Ferrer said. “But he kept on, until I finally agreed. I told him that I had to go home first, to wash up. He said, ‘No, the session is going on right now.’

They named the super-group of musicians after a Black social club that existed in the racially-segregated, pre-Castro era. It came about during one day when Rubén González played a song on the piano and Cooder asked him the name. "It’s a song written by Cachaíto’s father, Orestes López," Gonzalez told him. "It is the mascot tune of the Buena Vista Social Club..... It was a social club where musicians used to hang out.”

The BVSC album was released and nobody knew what would happen. "Buena Vista was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. We knew we’d made a special record, but nobody could have imagined how it would take off,” said Nick Gold. Well, both critics and audiences fell in love with the music and sales sky-rocketed.

In 1997, the album won a Grammy Award for Best Tropical Latin Performance. That same year, Wenders brought Cooder in to do the soundtrack for The End of Violence.

"Ry played me a rough mix of the first album, shortly after he returned from his trip to Havana," said Wenders. "In his usual understated way he just told me to 'check it out. I think it’s pretty good.' Well, it was more than good. I was totally electrified when I heard the music for the first time. I had never heard anything that contagious, warm, lively and so full of heartfelt experience. I remember I heard that rough cassette over and over that night."

"The next morning I asked Ry, 'Hey, who are these kids you found in Havana? They’re incredible.' He laughed, 'They are not exactly kids.' And then he told me about Ruben and Compay and Ibrahim and Omara and the others." Wenders decided at that moment he needed to go to Cuba and meet them. The two agreed that when Cooder returned, he would have Wenders come along and shoot maybe a documentary about it.

"We didn’t talk about it anymore until more than a year later," Wenders continued. "Ry called me one day, saying: 'Well, I’m off to Cuba again next week. You’re coming?' He gave me one week’s notice. Really not much to get a crew and a budget together. But I was on a plane to Havana with him that next week."

"From the moment that Ry introduced me to all of them saying, 'Hey, this is my friend Wim. He wants to film us while we are making our new album. Is that okay with you?' They all nodded and let us do what we were doing," Wenders said. "And the more we were with them, the more we became invisible. Actually, when we stopped shooting sometimes, they started worrying. “What’s wrong? Don’t you like us anymore?” They were almost joking. I never made an entire film before that at no time in the process felt like work. And boy, did we work hard though."

"When we went to Havana, I thought that was it. Three weeks of shooting, go home and edit," he continued. "Then it turned out that the band would actually appear, for two concerts in Amsterdam. I couldn’t possibly miss out on that.... We all thought that the one time they could all come together to play in public would be the only time ever."

"We shot for a week in Amsterdam, the rehearsals and the two concerts. In spite of their age and their experience, the musicians were really struck by stage fright, like a band of teenagers. They had no idea what reception was waiting for them. Both concerts were incredible. Legendary.... And again, that was not the end of the story. Another concert, this one definitely the last, emerged as a distant possibility.... We didn’t know up to the last moment, if the Cubans would actually all get visas and could show up in New York. But they did. We spent another incredible 4 days with them, shooting with them in the streets of New York and of course in Carnegie Hall."

"I realized the range of the film only when it came to an end, at Carnegie Hall. Only then it dawned on me what incredible journey we had had the privilege to follow. And that we had actually witnessed a story bigger than life, even if it had been for real. I saw all this in that final triumphant moment of Ibrahim’s, when he had finished his final solo and was just standing on stage, almost absent-minded, with the roaring applause around him that he didn’t seem to notice. I felt I knew what was going through his head then.... And I realized we had shot more than just a documentary."

Wenders said in another interview, "We were actually witnessing some sort of amazing fairy-tale happening in front of our eyes. We were just so amazingly lucky to be there, at the right time, in the right place. The rise to global stardom by these once down-and-out musicians was a deeply moving story."

"I'm happy because it's like a realized dream," said Juan de Marcos. "I knew that we would be successful, because of the authenticity of the music. The fact that it's the old guys coming to life again."

"This is an experience you just can't have so easily any more - real musicians who play what their inner selves are telling them to," Cooder said. “This is the best thing I was ever involved in," he said elsewhere. "It’s the peak, a music that takes care of you and nurtures you. I felt that I had trained all my life for this experience and it was a blessed thing.”

"The main thing for those of us who made the film," said Wenders, "and I hope it comes across for people viewing it - was that these Cuban musicians taught us a lesson in humility. It's an enormous and beautiful lesson and I'm really happy I had the privilege to be involved with these people."

Juan de Marcos and Ry gave me back my life,” Ferrer said in 2003. “I have been waiting for my moment. And now my turn has finally come.”


Over the last decade, we have continued to see how these performers are considered nothing but pawns in the silly games of those with agendas. It is hard to watch the movie and believe that any of these musicians have anything on their minds beyond making music. But yet....

To begin with, Ry Cooder was prosecuted and fined $100,000 for breaking the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917 for being involved in the recording. The fine was later reduced to $25,000. Then shortly before Bill Clinton left office, thanks to a lobbying effort by friends and supporters, the then President instructed the Treasury Department to issue a rare one-year license to allow him to continue recording with Cuban musicians in Havana. "We were on the plane the next day with the paper in our hand," Cooder said. "[T]the Head Customs guy at LA airport came to look. 'Well, I'll be damned,' he says, 'I haven't seen one of these in 40 years!'"

But it was nothing short of shameful that between November 2003 and 2009 none of these performers were allowed into the United States because of President George Bush's administration's renewed hard line towards Cuba.

And the most unforgivable and most egregious act was in 2004, when the 77-year old Ibrahim Ferrer was invited to the Grammys to accept his award for Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album of 2003, he was refused entry. According to Omara Portuando, "They stamped 'terrorist' on his passport." Ferrer died the following year.

As recently as last year, the 80-year old Portuando was scheduled to play a concert in Miami Beach and angry Cuban-Americans there protested, calling her a "Castro-Chavez Diva," and another said that bringing "Omara Portuendo to Miami is like bringing the Ku Klux Klan to Liberty City," referring to the mostly African-American neighborhood in Miami. Portunado canceled her show there, claiming the reason was low ticket sales and not the protests.

And the desire to make these artists pawns of an agenda extends to both sides of the political spectrum. In his article about the collaborations of Cooder & Wenders, Stephen Gregory of the University of New South Wales does a succinct job in explaining the issues others have raised about the BVSC and the film:

"The case against the film can be briefly summarised: the absence of any reference to what has been done since the revolution to promote all music in Cuba; the therefore inevitable omission of all modern Cuban dance music and to the social realities that subtend it; the omnipresence of Ry Cooder (whose Hawaiian guitar is heard, moreover, as an intrusion) and his son Joachim, and the concomitant diminishing of the real role played by Cubans in carrying out and completing the whole enterprise; the projection of a mythologised, pure pre-revolutionary past, including the picturesquely dilapidated buildings of Havana, to pander to a fashionable, first-world ‘retro’ taste. In short, a near textbook case of arrogant, unprincipled and highly selective appropriation for commercial gain by agents from the developed world of the culture of part of the developing world, aggravated in this case by the agents in question (the most ubiquitous of them, anyway) coming from the imperialist power that has devoted considerable time and money to the vain endeavour to overturn the socialist revolution in the country whose music they are filching."

Gregory attempts to answer these critics in his article as well. To me, the fact that both pro-Castro and anti-Castro fanatics can find something to hate in the music of the BVSC, shows how inane both sides are.

But let me let Ry Cooder summarize my thoughts: "I get up in the morning, I put on Buena Vista or whichever of these records, and I feel really great. I feel buoyant and encouraged and it brightens the corner of the day. That’s what music is supposed to do. It’s not supposed to scare you or hurt you or upset you in some crazy way. It’s supposed to make you feel encouraged and connected to something. That’s what these Cubans are really good at doing with their music; they’ve done it for themselves as a country for a very long time in a very artful, highly crafted way."

"These people have such a gift for everybody that it is unmistakable," he continued. "Listen to one note and there’s so much to offer. Of course, this is what politicians are incapable of doing. What do they do? They sit around and figure out how to make deals, how to get Coca Cola down there, how to get the money out. It’s a mess, it’s a snarly mess. What the music can do is cut through that in an instant because you receive this music, you feel it. You don’t think about it. You don’t use your head, you just use your whole self. You hear it and you feel it and you say, I feel good. That’s what everybody tells me."

But there's another Cuban export which no government can ever ban - their amazing cuisine....


Like most places in the New World that the Spaniards invaded, they pretty much wiped out all the indigenous people and repopulated the island of Cuba with themselves and African slaves and thus the cuisine of Cuba reflects both Spanish and African influences. Of course, after Castro took over and the US launched its embargo, food became scarce, more expensive, and pretty basic. (Although it is not particularly a well known fact, but despite the embargo, the US is Cuba's main supplier of food!) Many agricultural products grown in Cuba are exported to raise capital and not readily available to locals. Probably the best Cuban food is not found in Cuba itself, but in Cuban-American pockets around the US (which includes Florida, New York, and New Jersey).

Sometime, a long time ago, humans learned to make flour, and then made dough with that flour, and then they figured out it would taste good to put something in the dough (meat, vegetables, cheese, fruits) before they cooked it. Many suggest that this was first done in the Eastern Hemisphere somewhere in the Middle East, possibly Persia. Thus, like many foods and dishes which are now considered "Spanish," were in fact, introduced by Jews and Moors during the years before they were expelled or killed by rabid Christian fanatics starting in the 14th Century. These dishes include what evolved into and are today known as empanadas.

These empanadas (the Spanish verb empanar, meaning to (coat with) bread, is thought to be where the name comes from, but it may also be that the verb came afterwards) were (and continue to be) especially popular in the Northwest part of Spain, known as Galicia. For some reason, Galicians were especially interested in leaving Spain and resettling in the New World and took their love and recipes for empanadas along with them. Thus, we find empanadas a popular dish throughout Spanish-speaking countries in the Western Hemisphere. Of course, the indigenous people of the Western Hemisphere had their own culinary history of taking dough (for them corn), sticking other foods in them and cooking them which we call today tamales (but that's a post for another movie).

According to Wiki: "Cuban empanadas are typically filled with seasoned meats (usually ground beef or chicken), folded into dough, and deep fried. Cubans also sometimes refer to empanadas as empanadillas. Empanadas can also be made with cheese, guayaba, or a mixture of both. It can also be made with fruit such as apple. pears, pumpkins and pineapples. These are not to be confused with Cuban pastelitos, which are very similar but use a lighter pastry dough and may or may not be fried. Cubans eat empanadas at any meal, but they usually consume them during lunch or as a snack."

My recipe for empanadas does not have, perhaps, a typical Cuban filling mix, but is not beyond the realm of what a Cuban might fill one with. I think the spinach/raisin/nut mix is nice as it comes from the Jewish/Moorish tradition and is seen throughout the cuisines of Spain and Italy. (In fact, I'll be featuring such a dish in my Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown - Spanish Tapas class in May).

Anyways, you can bake these if you like, but they're really best fried. As always, cook, watch, eat and enjoy!

Empanadas de Queso y Espinaca
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

10-12 Servings

For Dough:
3 cups AP Flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 ounces butter, chilled and cut into small cubes
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
1/2 cup water

For Filling:
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 cup pine nuts
2 medium shallots, thinly sliced
6 cups spinach, rinsed and drained
1/2 cup raisins
3 cups peconrino romano or machego cheese, grated

2 eggs, only needed if baking
2 teaspoons milk, only needed if baking
canola oil, for frying

Add flour and salt into food processor with dough hook attachment and pulse to combine. Then add butter and vinegar, adding water as needed until it form into a nice dough. Form into a ball and chill 30 minutes. (You can split dough in half and freeze the other half for later use, if desired.)

Heat butter in pan, then add pine nuts to coat for about 1 minute. Then add onion and continue to sauté. Do not let brown. Lower heat and add spinach until wilted. Then add raisins and stir to combine. Remove from heat.

Remove dough from fridge, let sit a minute or two. If using all the dough, divide into four balls (if half, two). Roll dough on floured surface to about 1/8" thickness and then cut out a 6"circle. Repeat until you have 10-12 circles.

Fill each circle in the center with 1/2 spinach mix and 1/2 cheese. Then carefully fold in half to make half-moons. Using a fork, crimp down the edges to seal.

For frying: Heat about 1-inch of oil in frying pan. When hot, fry empanadas for about 3 minutes per side. Drain on paper.

For baking: Pre-heat oven to 375*. Beat egg & milk together and brush the tops of the empanadas lightly. Bake empanadas on greased or nonstick baking pan for 15-20 minutes until done.

Official Buena Vista Social Club site
PBS Buena Vista Social Club site
Official Wim Wenders site
"Rising Son: The Return of Ry Cooder & the BVSC," Interview, Barnes & Noble, 1999
"Wim Wenders Interview," Mondomix, October 2008
"At the Crossroads between Paris, Texas and the Buena Vista Social Club, Havana: Wim Wenders and Ry Cooder as Collaborators," by Stephen Gregory, Portal Journal, Vol 5, No 1 (2008)
Three Guys from Miami - Cuban Recipes
Taste of Cuba - Recipes & Restaurant Guide

Buena Vista Social Club DVD
Buena Vista Social Club Live In Concert DVD
Buena Vista Social Club CD/MP3
Buena Vista Social Club At Carnegie Hall CD/MP3/Vinyl
Buena Vista Social Club: The Photos, by Wim & Donata Wenders
The Rough Guide to Cuban Music, by Philip Sweeney
Buena Vista in the Club: Rap, Reggaeton, and Revolution in Havana, by Geoffrey Baker
Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo, by Ned Sublette
Three Guys from Miami Cook Cuban, by Glenn M. Lingren, Raul Musibay and Jorge Castillo
Memories of a Cuban Kitchen, Mary Urrutia Randelmann

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