A friend of mine, a Cuban film director, writes to me about visiting the Salzburg Festival.footnote1 After enjoying operas by Berlioz and Mozart, he says, the big surprise was the Festival’s closing event, a concert by the Cuban old-timers La Vieja Trova Santiaguera, chosen by the Festival’s special guest of the year, the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger. ‘It was tremendous. Austrians in elegant dresses and tuxedos cutting a caper and going crazy with the rhythm of one of the most traditional of our musical styles. Everyone danced and enjoyed themselves till the early hours. I can only tell you,’ my friend adds, ‘that wherever I go I find this incredible popularity of Cuban music.’

The international popularity of Cuban music is not, by any means, a new phenomenon. One need only think of the Latin jazz of the 1940s, when the Cuban drummer Chano Pozo was Dizzy Gillespie’s drummer and George Russell wrote ‘Cubana Be Cubana Bop’ for Gillespie and Charlie Parker; or the rise to fame in the 1970s throughout Latin America of the singers of the Nueva Trova like Silvio Rodrìguez and Pablo Milanès; then of Afro-Cuban jazz groups such as Los Irakere in the 1980s, followed by the salsa boom of the 1990s. But, in the last three years or so, there has been a new twist. Ever since the American guitarist and composer Ry Cooder recorded an album in Havana in 1996 with a group of largely forgotten ancianos (old folk) and issued it under the title of the Buena Vista Social Club, we have been treated not only to the vibrancy of Afro-Cuban jazz and salsa, but now, also, to a revival of the pre-revolutionary son of the golden period of the 1930s and 1940s. Yet, this is a revival like no other. These are not young musicians taking up and modernizing an old tradition, but the survivors of the original moment, now in their seventies, eighties, or even nineties, who are touring abroad for months at a time, playing venues such as Amsterdam, London, New York’s Carnegie Hall, and even Miami. The extraordinary sight of these old men, black or moreno, supercharging diverse audiences, has been captured in two films, the Dutch production Lagrimas Negras, directed by Sonia Herman Dolz, and now Buena Vista Social Club from Wim Wenders, made at the invitation of Cooder himself, the composer for Wenders’s films Paris, Texas and The End of Violence. The first of these films follows La Vieja Trova Santiaguera from Havana to Europe on their first foreign tour, the latter accompanies Ry Cooder on a return visit to Havana to record a new album with the Buena Vista musicians, and takes us with them to concerts in Amsterdam and New York.

It is not an accident that the reader has very likely heard of, and even seen, the film by Wenders, but probably not the Dutch film. This is not because the one is better than the other, but is rather a straightforward index of the limited marketing power of an independent producer in a small European country compared to a director of international standing with record industry backing. In fact, these two music documentaries constitute a most interesting pair because, despite being very similar in many ways, they nevertheless, in certain respects, display significant differences. The similarity stems from the premise shared by the two films—both celebrate the musicians’ emergence onto the world stage and offer a portrait of their life back in an impoverished Cuba—and from the way they both go about it by presenting us with the musicians one by one, who introduce themselves by telling us when and where they were born; in the Wenders film, for example, vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer is in his seventies, pianist Rubén González in his eighties, and guitarist-singer Compay Segundo is over ninety. In both films, the musicians tell us little snippets about themselves, and we visit them at home and see them rehearsing. And, of course, the mood of both films is also very similar, since both groups play music from the same tradition and repertoire. But there is more to it than that. Both films are powerfully charged by a feeling which is not a primary property of the music but is produced by the image: in a word, nostalgia.

This is not say that music cannot be nostalgic, which, of course, would be nonsense, but, rather, that the two films bring to the screen a quality which was sensed by a commentator reviewing the cd of Buena Vista Social Club in the New York Review of Books. The cover photo, writes Alma Guillermoprieto, of a wiry old black man strolling along a dilapidated Havana street in his white cap and shoes, looking a little like Sportin’ Life in Porgy and Bess, allows us, she says, to decipher the reason for the success of this music: ‘When we see it, we feel heart-stopping nostalgia for something we did not realize we had been missing. That something is Cuba.’footnote2 What is happening here is partly that the music is becoming associated with images of a present-day Cuba which preserves traces of a time long-gone in our own countries, such as the 1950s convertibles which have been kept going by loving Cuban drivers, evocative residues of the past on which Wenders, like other documentary makers before him—I have taken similar shots myself—allows his camera to linger.

These cars have changed their symbolic meaning. Originally, they signified Cuba’s modernity; then they came to signify its arrested development, as the us turned its back and the island fell under Soviet tutelage; now, they have passed from being quaint to becoming trophies of postmodernist retro, sought after by foreign tourists prepared to pay hard dollars for them.

On a symptomatic reading, therefore, what is registered in Guillermoprieto’s comment is a change which the image of Cuba has undergone since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As Cuba has become a vestige of the Cold War, it is seen ever more clearly as a victim of bullying by its overbearing neighbour.footnote3 This is the point of Wenders’s pre-title sequence, in which the Cuban photographer Korda shows him prints of photos from the heroic early days—here is Che Guevara, for example, playing golf with Fidel Castro (‘Who won?’ – ‘Fidel, because Che let him’)—which ends on an image of a demonstration in front of the us embassy which Korda calls ‘David and Goliath’.footnote4 But this stands as an enigmatic motto which allows Wenders largely to ignore politics for the remaining hundred minutes, though some of his performers do speak with pride of the path Cuba has chosen. The Dutch film is less coy, and has a whole section of interviews concerning how the Revolution benefited musicians by giving them steady employment and a regular wage. Nevertheless, the Cuba which both films evoke—through both the music and the memories of the musicians—is pre-revolutionary, and that is the truly nostalgic element.

Alma Guillermoprieto is trying to get at a puzzle about the extraordinary success of this anachronistic music which also exercises more popular writers. According to a album reviewer on the internet, Buena Vista Social Club, which has sold more than a million copies around the world,