"The thing about Cubans is that they're not bound up, they're really released in a good way," he explains. "These songs are like Persian miniatures in ivory, perfectly detailed stories about feeling good, and being kind of greasy and horny all the time."

Cooder says he is so captivated by this Cuban feeling that he'll often just stand on a Havana street corner and soak up the atmosphere. His idea in recording Buena Vista was to capture some of that sentiment, and he says the album's success in doing so was the reason for its enthusiastic reception. "You have to be able to get down to the essence," Cooder says. "It has to sound like it was really happening, not that it was re-created or catered, but to have a sense that something really beautiful is happening. Folks want to be moved or touched by something that feels real. These people have lived these songs their whole lives." He adds, "It wasn't like we were just going to do "El Manicero" ["The Peanut Vendor"] and go home. You can't just say, 'Play the guitar, buddy,' or 'Come on, sing,' or 'You at the piano, let's get going.' It's almost a telepathic thing that happens, but you can't do it without instant recognition and understanding. Believe me, I've been around when it didn't happen and this time it happened right away."

Cooder produced a second album in Cuba last year, featuring 73-year-old singer Ibrahim Ferrer. Coinciding with the release of the film, Ferrer's new self-titled CD will be in stores next week. It is an exquisitely beautiful record that could have even more widespread appeal than Buena Vista. While the producer describes Buena Vista, with its repertoire of acoustic son music, as a "pre-World War II album," he notes that the songs on Ibrahim Ferrer are from the Fifties and Sixties, and were jukebox hits in their day. They include boleros made popular by More and other Latin crooners of the day.

"I think of the bolero as a totally forgotten music," Cooder says. "It turned into schmaltz in the Sixties and just went away. A bolero doesn't mean anything if you can't sing it with a certain depth and beauty that really has to be heard to be believed. And Ibrahim just has one of those great voices. I don't know where you could find anyone anywhere else who could sing like that. He's a very ageless, fluid person."

Ferrer, who was orphaned as a child, began singing professionally at age thirteen. He was a singer with a number of popular bands, including Pacho Alonso's, but he never got his big break. When Juan de Marcos Gonzalez sought him out to sing on the Buena Vista album, he was retired and shining shoes for cash. This past year, according to Gonzalez, Ferrer made about $100,000 from concerts and royalties, a tidy sum in Cuba.

"Us old guys were better before because our voices were fresher, our fingers were more limber for the piano," says Ferrer, who was back in Havana after a trip to New York to promote his record and the film. "But as we say in Cuba, what's destined for you nobody can take away. Sooner or later it will happen. For me it came later, but now who knows how far it will go?" The sweet-faced Ferrer steals the Buena Vista film in a scene where he gives a tour of his house, taking a sip of rum on the sly as he leaves an offering on his Santeria alter, and wielding a carved African cane that belonged to his mother. He has clearly found the fountain of youth in his renewed career, bolstered by the fact that for Ferrer, the success of Buena Vista Social Club has a special, fitting significance: He was born at a social club dance.

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