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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Fascinating Rhythms
by Donald Levit

Screw-tightened thirty-one years afterwards by the Torricelli Act and then again in March 1996, the Cuban Blockade unquestionably has skewered the island. The local peso  basically worthless, "shortage" is the operative word. Lines form for everything, though nothing is available, from medical supplies or food to replacement parts for the "Yank tanks," those beautiful vintage U.S. cars. Inventamos, they laugh, we invent, improvise, think on our feet, and Cuba's hospitable people miraculously survive.

This is not at all the dour Communism of the pre-collapse Eastern Bloc but, rather, a brand unique to the Caribbean and the country. Despite the hurting and admittedly political régime, Spanish style streetlife thrives, there is a strong cinema culture nurtured through international festivals, museums flourish, and everywhere music is played and sung, listened to and, more, danced to. The soft air is seldom quiet, and Miami's reactionary Little Havana fails to capture its essence.

Although many of its musicians live and practice abroad, the enormous island half the size of all Great Britain remains an inspirational source to the rest of the world. The decision seemed almost foregone, that music professor and film producer, director and documentarian Gary Keys record the phenomenon. Seated in his open white convertible uptown in New York City, he recalls that, several years ago, "a colleague asked me to teach a master's course in Havana, Cuba," and the rest followed.

A few shots of Revolution monuments appear on-screen later, but much less frequently than in actuality, for the resultant work is apolitical. Despite an openly averred aim of uncovering the wellsprings of such musical culture in a society doubly burdened -- by the embargo and by its own government -- Cuba: Island of Music never emerges beyond a scattershot assemblage of amateurishly recorded street and club scenes intercut with clumsy, unenlightening interviews. That the subtitles are at times inadequate, or on-spot simultaneous voiced translations hard to catch, does not help, either.

Within any work in an art form, of course, what the artist chooses to include or exclude, for a variety of reasons, will invariably impart a particular slant. One might argue that Keys has loaded the dice selecting scenes of dancing, singing and playing. Yet such is the obvious vitality of the people and their music, that doubts are put aside and Cuba comes across as truly an isle of joyful rhythm.

Instrumental and vocal, salsa and traditional bolero, 2/4- or 4/4-time rumba or rap, religious chanting, jazz, native and African-inspired, all percussion-driven, even Chinese-Cuban song, are balanced midway when two baseball-capped members of the all-female Grupo Quasi Jazz surprisingly do a duet on what seem showroom pianos, a Chopin etude, followed by the full group in bass-heavy up-tempo performance.

Joyous faces appear throughout, including children's, and there are also respectful shots of workers and machines -- one impressive angled view of huge twin gears -- of old automobiles and new camellos (double-length buses), old fortresses and peeling pastel apartment buildings, the harbor and ships, and everywhere people are swaying, dancing, participating, spontaneously or in choreographed chorus line. There are a few formal concerts, and numerous opinions are expressed, especially in repeated interviews with New York jazz musicians Billy Taylor and expatriate Chico O'Farrell.

Despite itself, this documentary does convey the infectious felt rhythms of the land, a musical heritage which held sway in the 1940s and has recently re-emerged to importance. "Despite itself," for the film really has no cinematic backbone and cuts and distributes its musical numbers and interviews unwisely and arranges them with no plan. That Cuba and its musical genius come out so strongly is a tribute to the island and its soul rather than the result of skill or organization in the filmmaking. 

(Distributed by GothamJazz; not rated by MPAA.)

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