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LAS AMERICAS He Wrote the Song BY JOHN ROSS Havana/Mexico City The suave old codger pseudonymously dubbed “Compay Segundo” glides onto the stage in his traditional Panama hat and, waving his fat cigar like a baton, signals his muchachos to strike up what many consider to be the signature song of Cuba, “Guajira Guantanamera. ” Suddenly, the Mexico City audience is up and singing, along with their 92-year-old pot-bellied idol, just like audiences in the U.S. and Europe have been prone to do, ever since Compay and a clique of largely forgotten veteran Cuban musicians sat down to record The Buena Vista Social Club three years ago. Assembled by Ry Cooder, the eclectic Los Angeles guitarist, the Buenavistas most notably Compay, the elegant, pianist Ruben Gonzalez \(seventy millions of CDs to U.S. fans who did not have the vaguest idea what the old men were singing about. They even won a Grammy for their efforts. Now The Buena Vista Social Club has become a must-see Wim Wenders music documentary on / screens throughout the / world, and Compay and company are 41brahim Ferrer so hot that their projected February 2000 return to New York’s Carnegie Hall is already sold out. The runaway success of the Buenavistas is a sort of post-modern justice. Sliding into decrepitude Gonzalez’ piano had literally been collapsed by termites when he was rediscovered by Cooder on a Cuban music scene where the infernal racket of rock and rap shouted down the graceful sons, guajiras, and boleros of another era, the old men’s turn has come again. Their new-found popularity has revived a genre that brings some blessed lyricism to the incessant cacophony of urban industrial styles that dominate the pop music world. Unlike so many of their contemporaries, such as salsa queen Celia Cruz, the Buenav istas, who are old enough to remember the bad old days of pre-revolutionary Cuba, kept their faith with traditional Cuban son and did not or could not abandon the rebel island. One reward for sticking it out: last year, Compay Segundo was roughed up by a mob of Cuban exiles during a stopover in Miami. In 1999, the new old Cuban music revival has become a star attraction of the Havana tourist scene. Even as the music goes global, it is quite alive and kicking in crumbling old Havana, where a polished quartet of aging trouba dours croon dulcet boleros like “Dos Gardenias” upstairs at the well-worn Bodeguita de Media, and the son of Beny More \(the legend of Cuban son who drank himself into oblivmicrophone in the Plaza of the Cathedral. Out on the Malecon seawalk, the salsa and meringues sizzle during August carnaval time. To devotees of Cuban music, Havana Vieja has the feel of another rollicking Caribbean port, New Orleans. The boom has even brought Celia Cruz back to the island at least on film. A new feature documenting fifty years of son, and featuring More and Cruz, has just opened in Havana and the lines are around the block. Missing out on the sudden fame and Joseito Fernandez, the man who gave the world “Guantanamera,” or more properly, “Guajira Guantanamera,” farm song from Guantanamo \(on the extreme eastern end of the island, where the U.S. continues to maintain its unpopular miliWith or without lyrics by Jose Marti, the patriot poet who led the struggle for liberation against the Spanish at the beginning of the twentieth century, “Guan tanamera” was a favorite all over the island long be fore folk singer emeri tus Pete Seeger brought it to North America. Jo seito sang it for twenty years on a wildly popu lar radio show, on which a newscaster would read a nota roja from the newspapers \(literally, a “red note” usually a crime of the glib Fernandez would improvise a verse to his fa recorded “Guajira Guantanamera” for RCA Victor’s Latin Ruben Gonzalez mous song. Joseito 18 THE TEXAS OBSERVER OCTOBER 29, 1999