Buena Vista (or Hasta la)?

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.

Gold got his start in the music business with a firm called Arts Worldwide, which exposed world music artists to British audiences. Soon, the company started recording the performers for fans who couldn't get their records. Gold joined the label as a volunteer circa 1986, but he quickly started drawing a small salary to compensate his around-the-clock obsession with the job.

Until then, he had been working part-time at specialty record stores and collecting records he was personally "very keen on," such as New Orleans jazz, bebop and '60s reggae. "That was the sum of my experience in the record industry," he says.

Gold came to World Circuit with an interest in African music. He had graduated from the University of Sussex about three years earlier with a degree in African history. He had also started training to be a teacher and was doing community work to promote music events at schools, raising awareness of music from other countries.

But the high-strung producer soon started clashing with the label owners about what music to release. Eventually, he bought out their shares.

Gold doesn't even remember when he first met De Marcos, former head of a traditional Cuban group called Sierra Maestra. World Circuit released two of the group's CDs, the first in 1994. The two men discovered they shared a love for Cuban classics, especially the music of the late Arsenio Rodriguez, the legendary blind bandleader who played the tres, a unique Cuban guitar which DeMarcos also plays.

De Marcos told Gold of his dream project: an album in the big-band style of the 1950s featuring four generations of Cuban musicians. Gold liked the idea and traveled to Havana to make the first Afro Cuban All Stars album, featuring 84-year-old Gonzalez, who had played with Arsenio's band in the 1940s.

The Buena Vista Social Club then happened by accident.

Gold had also intended to record a second album during that same trip in the spring of 1996. It was to be a union of Cuban and West African guitarists, with Cooder invited to bridge the two cultures. But famously, the Africans failed to get a visa and never arrived.

When Cooder got to the Egrem studios in Havana, the All Stars had just finished their work and were still hanging around in clusters. An exciting energy was in the air. Gold had paid for the studio time, so Cooder said, "Let's see what happens."

Thus was born a craze for old Cuban music that even Gold doesn't yet understand.

"It's still actually quite strange," he said. "People you would never expect are listening to it. Even my mom's next-door neighbor has the record." Gold turned Buena Vista into a classic brand name, a seal of quality. But the glut has tarnished the mystique, and he wonders if people are "fed up with this label." The imprimatur "Buena Vista Social Club Presents" does not appear on the new Cachaito release, though Gold now has second thoughts about leaving it off.

Still, Gold doesn't believe audiences are about to abandon the viejitos . Not yet.

The test will come with the new album by Ferrer, currently being produced by Cooder. It will be the second World Circuit release by the 74-year-old vocalist, and Cooder promises some fresh touches, such as guest appearances by Tex-Mex accordion ace Flaco Jimenez and the old-style gospel group the Five Blind Boys of Alabama. Cooder said he's trying to "broaden the mood of each song" and "add some color to this now."

The American musician had to fight his own government for the chance to work with the Cubans again. In fact, he was fined $25,000 for collaborating on the original Buena Vista project.

As part of the U.S embargo of Cuba, Americans are prohibited from conducting most business in the country. Because Gold is British, he's free to operate there. But Cooder had to seek a special license from Washington to go back.

The effort took a year of intense lobbying and cost Cooder a fortune in legal fees. The license came through with all the drama of a last-minute pardon from an outgoing president. It was issued on the final Friday of the Clinton administration. The next day, as the president prepared to leave the White House, Cooder left for Cuba.

This time, the trip was legal. But, meanwhile, Cooder had been barred from going to Havana for the Cachaito recording, which he calls "a brave piece of work."

"I missed the whole thing, and I'm not very happy about it," Cooder said.

His license--the only one issued by the U.S. Treasury Department in 40 years, Cooder said--allows him to record with Cuban nationals, but it expires after 12 months. Cooder is racing to complete the Ferrer album and another with guitarist Manuel Galban--"an amazing renegade guy ... , sort of a rocker," he says.

For De Marcos, Gold's former collaborator, the success of Buena Vista has been an artistic trap of sorts. As soon as he tried to stretch out, critics accused him of straying from the true path, of betraying the traditional son , which he had helped make fashionable again.

"The thing is not to return to the past," said De Marcos. "The thing is to reinterpret the past according to contemporary standards."

As a cultural phenomenon, Buena Vista perpetuated misconceptions about Cuba, its music and its artists. The myth that Cubans had abandoned their traditional roots. That these Buena Vista performers were once the best in their day. That outsiders had to come and rescue a dying culture.

De Marcos is particularly upset about the popular film documentary, "Buena Vista Social Club," by German director Wim Wenders.

"The movie is terrible," he said. "It doesn't reflect the reality of Cuban society or of the city of Havana, and it treats the old musicians as if they were objects. It was made to influence people in the First World, to make them cry over Cuba's 'chaotic situation."'

That's one point De Marcos and Gold still agree on. The British producer also objects to scenes in the film showing the old Cubans looking bedazzled and bewildered as they walk the streets of Manhattan before their Carnegie Hall concert. Gold thinks the musicians were acting childlike for the camera, making them look "more innocent than they really are."

"The line of the movie ramps up to this concept of New York as if it's the pinnacle of their desires and ambitions," he said. "It could be considered patronizing.... They're incredibly well-educated, cosmopolitan and intelligent people, the Cubans."

Cooder blames the media for the Cold War spin on Buena Vista.

"If the media took the position that we rescued these old musicians, the implication is that we saved them from the neglect of their own society," said Cooder. "[But] I'm not saying that we went down there like crusaders marching for Jesus to save these old people from desolation, because when you go to Cuba you don't feel this."

In Cuba, modern musicians found the success of the Buena Vista old-timers "quite bizarre," Gold acknowledges. It would be as if somebody came to the U.S, rounded up aging ex-members of Bill Haley's Comets, then tried to pass them off as the best rockers of their day, never mentioning Elvis Presley or Little Richard.

So some say Buena Vista even set back contemporary Cuban music by focusing on the past. But Cooder disagrees.

"This success appears to have pulled a lot of people along with it," he said.

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* Orquesta Ibrahim Ferrer with Ruben Gonzalez, Chucho Valdes, Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., L.A., 7:30 p.m. $1 to $90. (323) 850-2000.

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