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Posted January 16, 2004 by publisher in Cuban Music

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By STEPHEN HOLDEN | New York Times

Underneath the ebullient surface of Gary Keys’s uplifting documentary “Cuba: Island of Music” is a plea for an end to the United States embargo on trade with Cuba. Or as Mr. Keys wonders: why is what’s good for China not good for Cuba?

Mr. Keys — a prolific documentary filmmaker and concert producer, many of whose films have musical subjects — conceived the movie when he was invited to Havana to teach a master class, and the movie jumps back and forth between the Cuban capital and New York. In its impulse to educate, it could be described as a basic course: Afro-Cuban Music 101.

The material isn’t organized in any formal way but works as a mosaic that has the feel of a jam session. Its rambling succession of musical numbers rushes from one group to the next, usually offering only fragments of songs instead of full performances. The historical comments pay only briefest attention to the evolution of salsa, which has replaced more sedate and romantic musical styles as Cuba’s dominant sound. To its credit, the movie, which opens today in New York, doesn’t revisit the same territory as Wim Wenders’s somber, elegiac “Buena Vista Social Club,” which focused on great Cuban performers of the 1950’s.

The newer film’s view of contemporary Havana is also much less poetic. Where the Wenders film lingered on Havana’s grand, crumbling architecture as a metaphor for the mostly aged often half-forgotten legends whose careers it helped revitalize, the Havana of “Island of Music” is a poor but joyful city whose spirit is defined by the pulse of salsa.

Besides Mr. Keys, the movie’s two principal commentators are Chico O’Farrill, the veteran Afro-Cuban jazz band leader who first performed in the United States in the late 1940’s and still conducts at clubs like Birdland, and Billy Taylor, the American jazz pianist, composer and longtime champion of Afro-Cuban music.

Mr. O’Farrill may be a wonderful musician, but he is not an articulate commentator, whereas Mr. Taylor is a genial enthusiast who wishes out loud that there were a stronger infusion of salsa into American music. Mr. Taylor does a fine job of outlining the ABC’s of Afro-Cuban musical structure. Those ABC’s begin with the fact that the African music imported to the New World with slavery was oriented around drums and percussion and, unlike European music, was always inseparable from dance. Mr. Taylor gives a brief, basic demonstration of its foundation in multiple rhythms.

In its second half, the movie offers brief samplings of modern salsa-based hybrids involving rap (Raperos de Zanja), Asian music (Grupo del Barrio Chino Jess Arroyo) and American rhythm and blues. One young Cuban woman demonstrates basic dance steps. Another tries to evoke the relationship of the salsa to love and comes up only with cliches. Both women seem included predominantly for their value as eye candy.

The most tantalizing question is posed by the filmmaker himself. Having expected to find the Cuban people oppressed and miserable under Fidel Castro, he is amazed at their spirit and capacity for joy. How, he wonders, can a repressive society have an incredible music that involves so much freedom? The answer, of course, has something to do with the collective will of the people not just to survive but also to flourish.

Island of Music

Directed by Gary Keys; in English and Spanish, with English subtitles; directors of photography, Esteban Acua Pazos, Humberto Galarza Rivera, Caesare Costanzo, Lluis Escartin, David Sonnenshein, Milton Kam and Rich Rickaby; edited by David Himmelstein and Dora Soltani; produced by Mr. Keys, Brendan N. Ward and Jorge Garca Lorenzo. At the Quad Cinema, 34 West 13th Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 80 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Chico O’Farrill, Billy Taylor, Orquesta Aragon, Grupo del Barrio China Jess Arroyo, Raperos de Zanja, Los Zafiros and Manolin.

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