We are invited into the loft of an aging building in Havana. (Are there any new ones?) An elderly but still handsome man with beautiful dark skin and shining gray hair sits down at a piano as young ballerinas bend, stretch and whirl around him. He extends his arms, lowers his gnarled hands and begins playing "Pueblo Nuevo," a haunting son ballad. One by one, the dancers break away from their rehearsal and come over to the piano. Their radiant smiles beam down on Rubén González. He smiles back at them.
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote that there are no second acts in America. But there are second acts in music, and I cannot think of a more deserving example than González.First, you should know that Cuban son combines elements of Spanish canción with African rhythms. The result is a kind of hushed romanticism that to my ears seems much closer to jazz than folk.
Second, you should know that González had been a celebrated pianist in Latin-jazz big bands that played the Central America-New York circuit in the 1940's and 50's before Fidel Castro came to power.
But son and other forms of folk music had fallen out of favor. González, who was stricken with arthritis, had given up his own termite infested piano and had not played in years. A forgotten legend in his own country, his career was over.
Then, in 1976 Ryland "Ry"Cooder dropped into González's quiet 75-year-old life while on his quest for the roots of Cuban folk music.
González thought he was being teased when he was summoned to a Havana recording studio where Cooder had assembled a lineup of legendary son musicians, including guitarist Compay Segundo and vocalists Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portunda. All had once played at an Havana social club called the Buena Vista.
Cooder described his first recording session with González thusly:
He was rusty, but great. He was this little old guy, but you could see he could still play.
He was a very kinetic player, very high energy, and had that very animated quality that Cuban musicians have. That is very hard to get on tape: microphones don't see that kind of energy.
Some people can play fast, some people can play loud, some people can play sad, some people can play scary, but this dancing quality, for me, has something to do with your character.González's dazzling keyboard style was the heartbeat of Buena Vista Social Club's recordings and concert tours in the late 1990s, which were international phenomenons and led to a revival of interest in Cuban music.
He was a happy man, Rubén. Cheerful, happy, laughing.
The Dear Friend & Conscience and I saw Rubén González with Buena Vista Social Club twice before his death at age 84 in 2003. Had I not seen the Winders' documentary, I would have thought he wasn't even capable to making it to the piano given his stooped and halting walk.
Looks deceived, of course, and once seated he was the king of his domain. How could this man have ever been forgotten?