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Buena Vista (or Hasta la)?

A rift opens between two men behind the popularization of Cuban music: Should it look backward or forward?

July 12, 2001|AGUSTIN GURZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pretend for a moment that you're Nick Gold, owner of a small British record label called World Circuit. You should be having the time of your life--except for those nagging worries about the future.

Most people don't know this, but you--not Ry Cooder--are the driving force behind the Buena Vista Social Club, the nostalgic 1997 collection of old Cuban standards that became an unlikely international phenomenon in record sales, on film and on the concert stage.

It was you who teamed up with Juan de Marcos Gonzalez, the Havana-based musician who rounded up those charming old veterans for the project. And it was you who called in Cooder, the Los Angeles-based guitarist and producer whose rootsy reputation helped lure fans who had never heard this kind of music before.

The days of running your label as a one-man operation out of your north London flat are long gone. Buena Vista has made you a rich man, and it appears there's no stopping you now. You've got Cooder back in the studio in Havana and half a dozen new projects in the works. Individual Buena Vista members keep touring at rock-star paces, including pianist Ruben Gonzalez and singer Ibrahim Ferrer, who headline a show at the Hollywood Bowl on Sunday called "A Night in Old Havana."

The problem is that nostalgia goes only so far, and even you have started to worry that the Buena Vista bloom may be withering.

Pretending stops being fun at this point.

Recently, Gold and De Marcos parted ways over creative differences. They don't see eye to eye on the future of the music. And Gold worries, moreover, that the public may be tiring of the trend altogether.

Music critics have begun to burn out on the Cuban genre just as Gold, Cooder and De Marcos head in new directions. Gold says some reviewers have ignored his label's groundbreaking new release by Buena Vista bassist Orlando "Cachaito" Lopez, remarkable for its modernism. He believes that some, expecting more of the same old sound, didn't even bother listening to the startling work. Their reaction, according to Gold: "We've done our Cuban thing for this month."

Blame the backlash on Buena Vista's success. It has led to a global glut of Cuban music, some of it of dubious merit, slapped together to exploit the fad.

"There's a weariness at the moment of all things Cuban," admits Gold. "It's very sad."

For better or worse, Gold's World Circuit label has created a cottage industry, with seemingly endless spinoffs and countless imitators. The Buena Vista juggernaut is now into its fourth year, with five albums already released and six more planned from World Circuit alone, including one by Paris-based percussionist Miguel "Anga" Diaz that promises to be another progressive step.

Fans still flock to the Buena Vista concerts, including the Bowl show this weekend, which also features famed pianist Chucho Valdes of Irakere. People are drawn as much by the music as by the magnetism of the old performers, who won hearts around the world with their tender comeback stories.

De Marcos also came through town last month, for the Playboy Jazz Festival. But significantly, he appeared with a younger, revved-up incarnation of the Afro Cuban All Stars, the group he and Gold first gathered in Havana five years ago, forming the nucleus of what was to become the Buena Vista Social Club.

The strong-headed Cuban with the graying dreadlocks says he wants to get away from what he calls the fad of the old-timers-- la onda de los viejitos. He's looking to the future of Cuban music, not the past.

"I want to introduce new people and songs," said De Marcos during an interview at his Sunset Strip hotel. "The only way to move forward is to bring in young musicians, so the public won't have the erroneous impression that the only legitimate music in Cuba was made 40 years ago and that the only worthwhile musicians are 80 years old."

Though they remain on good terms, Gold and De Marcos argued over using old arrangements and even over a single chord that stretched the boundaries of the traditional. De Marcos advocated "a modernism that didn't particularly appeal to me," said Gold, whose musical tastes have always been anachronistic.

"I think he thought I was a bit of an old fuddy-duddy and a weird nostalgia person," said the label executive and father of two young children. "To his ear, some songs might be a bit hackneyed, since he grew up with the music. For him, it's ancient. For someone like me, there's still something new and exciting about it."

Nevertheless, De Marcos may have ultimately prevailed in the debate. For there are some musical surprises in store on new Cuban releases coming from World Circuit. The era of old-timers doing recycled Cuban standards may be over.

No matter what happens, however, Gold's success in mining and marketing the Cuban sound remains unprecedented in the Castro era.

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