In the 1990s Rye Cooder made a memorable trip to Cuba where he connected with the musicians who had first popularized the afro-Cuban sound decades earlier. The Buena Vista Social Club was a truly remarkable album. Even though some of the musicians involved hadn’t played or sang in years, and were now elderly, for a brief glorious period they recaptured the form that had made them famous.
In a subsequent follow up album and documentary movie made of their concert tour by Wim Wenders, they still showed no signs of aging. Seemingly immortal one could have been forgiven for thinking their second career would last as long as their first. Of course, that wasn’t to be the case as even before the release of the documentary some of the musicians featured in it had died.
In the years since more of the elders of the original Cuban music scene have passed over, hopefully content in the knowledge that for one brief moment they were able to experience the recognition they so richly deserved. The best thing about the discs and the movie that had propelled these musicians back into the limelight was not once did it feel like they didn’t deserve the attention. There was never the feeling that sentimentality was being used to milk a cash cow: “Oh look at those cute old people singing and dancing”.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said for two newer releases of more recent tours. Muscia Cubana Live In Amsterdam and Musica Cubana Live In Tokyo both give off the whiff of an attempt being made to cash in on the name made by the Buena Vista Social Club. Both discs give original Vista vocalist Pio Leiva top billing, when in actual fact by the time of the Tokyo concert he is almost unable to walk let alone sing.
In the Amsterdam concert he is surrounded by an incredibly tight band of musicians, and he manages to croak his way through a number of songs with a reasonable amount of enthusiasm and ability, but not with any sort of skill that merits a concert disc. He is accompanied by one other solo performer, who while is technically able, just doesn’t seem to have the same sort of energy and passion as any of his elders did.
Also included on the bill was a Cuban version of Brittany et al called Chiki Chaka. Their only redeeming qualities, aside from physical assets, were the band that accompanies them and the fact that one of them has a reasonable voice. It seemed more like and opportunity to give Pio Leiva a chance at the George Burns routine, right down to the cigar in his mouth.
In Tokyo it seems that all they’ve used is Pio Lieva’s name as the draw and the concert was advertised as Pio Lieva and the Sons of Cuba everywhere except on the box of the DVD. (Although technically it should have been Sons and Daughters of Cuba as there were two women involved who could actually sing). This concert is actually by far the better of the two as we get to hear the next generation of Cuban musicians.
They are amazing. From the musicians out to the vocalists they are worthy of being the successors to the men and women of the original Buena Vista discs, which makes it even more embarrassing and sad when they haul Pio Lieva out onto the stage. He can barely walk and his singing voice has been reduced to a low mumble. I have to admit that I couldn’t even bring myself to watch the few times they did bring him out.
The other thing that gives the impression of exploitation is the packaging makes no mention of any performer’s name except Pio Lieva and the sexy girl act Chiki Chaka. The credits on the disc themselves aren’t much help because if you don’t know somebody, the word vocals and a name don’t mean anything when there are seven vocalists.
Of the two discs Muscia Cubana Live In Tokyo and Musica Cubana Live In Amsterdam I would say the Tokyo disc is the only one with any redeeming qualities because of the opportunity to see the incredibly talented people who are carrying on the tradition of afro-Cuban music. Aside from that I would say don’t bother with either of these discs.