Music permeates Cuban culture. That fact was tunefully demonstrated in the documentaries presented during the 16th Havana Film Festival New York last week. Curated by film critic, historian, and researcher Luciano Castillo, director of the Cinemateca Cubana, the series “Celebrating Nosotros la Música” offered a varied glimpse of some of the outstanding musicians and groups of the past 50 years.
The documentary that inspired this retrospective was produced 50 years ago. Nosotros La Música / We, the Music (66 min., 1964), directed by Rogelio Paris, serves up a rich panorama of popular Cuban music of the post-WWII era, featuring Bola de Nieve, Celeste Mendoza, Ana Gloria, Elena Burke, Charanga a la francesa, Ignacio Piñeiro’s septet, dance couple Silvio and Ada, Quinteto Instrumental de Música Moderna, Chapotín Orchestra, and the street troupes Cocuyé and Orile. It’s an exhilarating celebration of island talent and an excellent overview of the musical culture of the period.
An early goal of ICAIC (the Cuban National Film Institute, founded in 1959) was to celebrate Cuban culture—by, for, and with all Cubans. One of the first music shorts produced by ICAIC was directed by Spanish-born Néstor Almendros, who became a world-famous cinematographer. Ritmo de Cuba (19 min., 1960) opens with a dance rehearsal and performance to a traditional Cuban son, then segues to an Afro-Cuban number in praise of the Yoruba goddess Oshun.
Another early documentary, Las Parrandas / The Bash (27 min., 1977), by Constante Diego, focuses on traditional celebrations held In the towns of Camajuaní and Remedios, in the center of the island, where local groups create elaborate floats and compete in friendly rivalry for top honors in the annual festivities—much like the New Orleans’ krewes that participate in the Mardi Gras parades. During the parrandas, parades, music, and fireworks continue late into the evening.
José Limeres directed a number of musical shorts that are considered precursors of the video clip of today. He filmed some of Cuba’s most popular singers, such as Celeste Mendoza (10 min., 1968), the Queen of Guanguancó.
Limeres also filmed the girl group Las d’Aida, a quartet that initially included Elena Burke, Moraima Secada, and the sisters Omara and Haydée Portuondo. Founded and directed by the pianist Aida Diestro (hence, “las de Aida”), the group toured widely in the post-WWII era, performing boleros, jazz-influenced songs (filin/feeling), and pop pieces. In this link, they perform a very 1960s version of “Guantanamera”—complete with go-go boots and twist-inspired movements.
Omara Portuondo (b. 1930), one of most beloved Cuban singers, is still performing today, appearing with the Buena Vista Social Club. She was also the subject of a new feature-length documentary presented in competition at the Havana Film Festival New York. Omara: Cuba (90 min., 2015), directed by Lester Hamlet, could have benefited from some serious editing to include more performances and fewer repetitive accolades from colleagues and admirers. But it does include lengthy interview sequences where Omara herself talks about her career trajectory.
Sara Gómez, one of the few women filmmakers in the early days of ICAIC, directed Y…Tenemos Sabor / And…We Have Flavor (1967). Musician and instrument maker Alberto Zayas demonstrates the basic instruments of Cuban music and their development. Featuring Changüí, Típico Habanero, Clave y Guaguancó y Conga from Santiago of Cuba, trios Los Decanos and Virgil Almenares, orchestra Estrellas Cubanas, and Chucho Valdés and his combo, and Guapachá. Watch it here.
Singer and actress Rita Montaner (1900–1958) achieved mythic status during her career. A classically trained pianist and singer, and a natural actress, she became a star of theater, film, radio, and television, and toured internationally. Rita was often referred to as “La Única (the one and only).” Rebecca Chávez traces the life and work of this superstar in her award-winning documentary Con todo mi amor, Rita (59 min., 2000), hosted by Montaner’s granddaughter, actress Antonia Fernández. Rita was a light-skinned mulata, of mixed race, but in some of her films she appeared with darkened skin to accentuate her African heritage. In 1931 she appeared on Broadway in an Al Jolson musical, Wonder Bar. Click here to see the complete documentary.
Another famous singer is the subject of Yo soy la canción que canto / I Am the Song I Sing (27 min., 1985), directed by Mayra Vilasis. Bola de Nieve (1911–1971) was born Ignacio Jacinto Villa Fernández in Guanabacoa (also the birthplace of his friends Rita Montaner and composer Ernesto Lecuona). His round, black face earned him the nickname Bola de Nieve (Snowball), by which he was known professionally throughout his international career as singer, pianist, and composer. He performed in Europe, Latin America (especially Mexico), the Soviet Union, and Chine, and sang in five languages. Among his frequently performed numbers was “El Manicero.”
Two other short films focused on musicians who were part of ICAIC’s legendary Grupo de Experimentación Sonora. Las Manos y el Ángel (27 min., 2002), by Esteban Insausti, explores the legacy of pianist Emiliano Salvador (1951–1992). Leo-Irakere (24 min., 1979), by José Padrón, documents a 1978 concert at Havana’s Karl Marx Theater, featuring guitarist and composer Leo Brouwer (b. 1939) with Chucho Valdés and the group, Irakere, here performing “Concierto de Aranjuez” by Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo.
The series wrapped up with Bluechacha (35 min., 2012), by Ernesto Daranas, who also directed Conducta (2014), which garnered the award for Best Feature at last year’s Havana Film Festival New York. This visually rich and imaginative production takes us behind the scenes of “Bluechacha,” the last album recorded by guitarist, composer, and director Manuel Galbán (1931–2011), who also founded the quartet Los Zafiros. Produced in collaboration with Galbán’s daughter, composer Magda Rosa Galbán, and her husband, musician Juan Antonio Leyva, the film shows the three of them at work on the album, interspersed with dramatic sequences that tell a love story related to the music.
Luciano Castillo noted that there is such a wealth of films documenting Cuban music that it was a challenge selecting representative productions for this series. He views this as a sampling of what could become a much broader and deeper history of Cuban music on film.