He who holds the camera controls history, leaving viewers to peek around the corners, wondering what's been left out and why. Fernando Trueba's loving testament to Latin jazz, Calle 54, touches ground in Havana, New York, San Juan, Cádiz, and even Stockholm, mapping the travels of the masters of the form. Capturing the last recorded performance by the late timbalero Tito Puente, the film's greatest gift is the preservation of the image and sound of the genre's monsters, those who must also one day pass, leaving behind an undying legacy. Although the centerpiece of the 2001 FIU-Miami International Film Festival, and motivated according to the filmmaker's narration by a recording Trueba received some years ago from festival director and Miami resident Nat Chediak, one geographical point the film does not visit is our Magic City.
Calle 54 does engineer the first recorded duet between pianist Bebo Valdez, the director of the Tropicana Orchestra before the revolution, who now lives in Sweden with long-time Miami resident and bass-playing great Israel "Cachao" Lopez. Unlike most of the other featured artists who are shown in their current homes or returning to their place of birth before performing in the 54th Street Manhattan studio where the sessions take place, Cachao drops in out of nowhere. Irakere founder and Havana dweller Chucho Valdés is reunited with his father, Bebo, after a five-year separation for a touching piano duet of Ernesto Lecuona's "Comparsa." However, his Irakere bandmates, Miami denizens saxophonist Carlos Averoff and trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, are markedly absent. Their omission is undoubtedly as deliberate as that of Desi Arnaz, whose portrait pounding a conga circa 1939 is passed over as the camera pans the mural dedicated to Latin jazz in Tito Puente's restaurant. Tito points to the figures on the wall, summing up briefly each one's significance, then bloop, the camera jumps right over America's best-loved Cuban, to land on the tragic genius Chano Pozo.
Of course it could be argued that Arturo Sandoval at least already had his movie this year. The HBO exilio For Love or Country fest told a very interesting tale of Irakere's formation, in which the experimental ensemble was never socialist (the script could be read as a particularly elaborate public renunciation); never Afro-Cuban (those congas were just "camouflage" so that musicians could trick the regimen into letting them play all that Yankee imperialist jazz); and was pretty much all Sandoval's idea with Chucho playing hardly any role at all. Sandoval got the full Ricky Ricardo treatment, played by the dashing Andy Garcia and making de-Africanized, pro-capitalist music. Somehow we always end up back at the Miami Sound Machine.
We'll never get the full picture of Latin jazz and Cuban culture unless we're open to the contradictions that blow back and forth across the Florida Straits and up and down the Atlantic. Just how mixed up so-called right-wing Miami, lefty New York, and communist Cuba can be became clear at the late-night rumba led by Marielito-cum-Central Park legend Orlando "Puntilla" Rios and his Nueva Generación at the film festival's Baileys Café. Sitting in with the group were Miami's own folklore transplants, Filbert Armenteros on congas and Alain Hernandez on clave and vocals.
Whatever happened when our music went pop, Miami's traditional Afro-Cuban performers still packs admirable power. Sonyasi Feldman, who arrived on our shores roughly one year ago as a blushing bride, answered Armenteros's call for local rumberos. Nueva Generación ran through some traditional numbers with a few English-language rumbas, likely composed for the English-only Manhattan hipsters who are still down with the revolution and dig supposedly authentic Cuban culture. As a reminder of history's omissions, Feldman improvised a rumba around the Pablo Milanes song "El Breve Espacio en que No Estas" ("The Small Space Where You Are Not"), about an inconstant lover. Perhaps stunned by the introduction of Milanes, who is in the confusing position of criticizing the Castro regime from within, a startled Puntilla answered Milanes's phrase "no one knows what she will do," with a traditional rumba whose chorus asks, "Now what will I do?"
Founding Irakere saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, whose album ignited Trueba's passion for Latin jazz, sat smiling in the audience, then wove his way through the tables to the stage for a hilarious, loose-hipped version of the rumba. His dance done, he shimmied to the men's restroom, where he was heard gleefully singing to himself: "Now what will I do?/Strike a blow at Imperialism from right here in Miami."
I don't care, though, what anyone says about the politics of exilio or the commercialization of Latin pop; I love Calle Ocho. Give me three million sweaty people crammed into 27 blocks, wandering around trying to amuse themselves across the long stretches of pavement between stages and the long unsynchronized pauses between acts. This is democracy! Forget about prepackaged entertainment: Most of the time most people at Calle Ocho are so bored they are moved to sing, dance, and clown around for themselves.
This is not just free-market capitalism; if you're willing to wait long enough in line, all the best U.S. commodities -- from Kraft macaroni and cheese to AT&T phone cards -- are outright free! And just like every year, all our favorite international stars will be there, from the naughty merengueros Oro Solido giving everyone helpful hints on how to keep cool ("¡Chupe tu Paleta!" -- "Suck Your Popsicle!") to the ever-popular Grupo Niche, still upset because La Negra doesn't want to dance with them after all these years. Best of all this year, Elvis Crespo is Carnaval King. Clever Sony, all the "Suavemente" star needed to do for the Kiwanis to offer him a crown was cut his hair.
But if forced physical contact with millions of strangers is not your idea of a good time (and believe me, it is mine), you might retreat this Sunday to the First Methodist Church of Coral Gables, where the indomitable Marlene Urbay will conduct the Florida Chamber Orchestra in a program of Vivaldi, Haydn, and Mozart featuring visiting Russo-Cuban violinist Sasha Ferreira of the Lima Philharmonic Orchestra. From Calle 54 to Calle 8, from mambo to Mozart, the course of Miami's culture may never run straight, but you can't leave us off the map.
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