New documentary brings another forgotten Cuban master musician back into the spotlight
The Oscar-winning feature documentary The Buena Vista Social Club brought the spotlight back onto a forgotten generation of Cuban master musicians; people like Company Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrar and Ruben Gonzalez finally made their international breakthrough. And the CDs that followed showcased their extraordinary musical talents and thrilled people around the world.
A further instalment of the Cuban music story was shown in Bangkok this past week at the 3rd World Film Festival. Directed by German Kral, Musica Cubana (2004) centres around another Buena Vista alumni, “maestro” singer Pio Leiva, a sprightly 85-year old with a permanent cigar, a permanent smile and great taste in flatcaps.
Set in Havana, the film begins on an ordinary day, with taxi driver Barbaro Marin haggling with his passengers as they pack into his ageing vehicle. One of his passengers is Pio Leiva, who is late for a radio spot. They become fast friends and Marin is so impressed with the singer that he announces he will be his manager and that they will form a band. Mind you, not just any band but one that features the best and brightest of Cuba’s young generation of musicians.
Have cigar, will travel: Singer Pio Leiva finally hits the big time in “Musica Cubana”.
Thus, we follow the odd couple, the taxi-driver, now nattily dressed in a blue suit, and the maestro, as they move around the city checking out the local musical talent, dropping in and joining practice sessions. Cubans make music anywhere and everywhere; the sense of music as an important and bonding part of community life shines through in nearly every frame.
We visit singer El Nene’s mother, where he tells us that she is his inspiration, while another singer goes to his local barrio, where he explains the roots of his music in his tight-knit community. Most of the singers tell of trying to phrase like the late legend Benny More by spending hours listening to his records. The trumpet player returns to the National School of Music, where every available space is crammed with students playing and practising. My 14-year-old son was very impressed with the sublime drumming skills of kids his age. Me, too.
Eventually, after a delightful series of musical vignettes, the band, or rather orchestra, comes together for a performance at one of Havana’s main promenades. Director Kral could have almost ended the movie there but there is the dream of playing overseas to work into the plotline. I found it a bit “hokey” how two Japanese sponsors are quickly found, plane tickets emerge and off they go to Tokyo.
The documentary ends with the band playing at a show in Tokyo, having “made it” to the Big Time but I found the ending a bit rushed. Really, this is my only quibble because there is so much fun, spirit and great music in this film. In fact, I was rather disappointed to emerge into a shopping mall after I’d seen it; I was hoping I could continue my Havana sojourn.
The film is due for DVD release soon; Cuban music lovers will surely enjoy it, as will the musically curious.
Meanwhile, Escondida Records has just released four interesting compilations from Buena Vista legends Company Segundo (El Compadre Again), Rueben Gonzalez (Momentos), Omara Portuondo (Sentimento) and Ibrahim Ferrar (Ay, Candela). The cuts on the albums are from the 1970s and 1980s. Look out for these albums.
The Kora All Africa music awards celebration hits its 10th anniversary this year. One of the nominations for the top award for 2005 is the Tanzanian singer Saida Karoli, who sings in the Bahya language. I’ve heard a couple of songs by her and she has a wonderful voice. Look out for this great talent to emerge internationally very soon.
Veteran broadcaster Charlie Gillet, part of BBC Radio 3’s quartet of intrepid “World Music” DJs, has recently released another one of his annual round-up of the year’s favourite tracks. Sound of the World (Wrasse, UK, 2005) is worth tracking down for the sheer variety of the artists on the two-CD album - from Croatia’s Darko Rndek to Mali’s Issa Bagayogo to Mauritania’s Malouma.
Some of the more famous artists include Senegal’s Youssou N’dour, with a track from his Islam-inspired Egypt album.
Finally, a treat for Afrobeat fans. One of Fela Kuti’s great early inspirations was Gerald Pino, who, along with his band the Heartbeats, developed a sound based on US funk/r’n'b and a strong African percussion base.
His pioneering work from the early 1960s can be heard on Heavy Heavy Heavy (RetroAfric, UK, 2005). A must for Afrobeat fans.