Return to Paradise

The sun is rising in Havana amidst a picturesque, orange-hued sky. The people are awake, sitting at their windows (Qué pasa chiquita?!), smoking gigantic cigars, and playing dominoes as the waves from the Gulf of Mexico furiously crash onto the coastline rocks. And, of course, music -- the country's spirit and livelihood -- is everywhere: on the radio, in the streets, in the clubs. Right now, Pio Leiva, a legendary old-school singer, is late for a gig in the Radio Progreso building, and his fans are patiently anticipating his arrival.

Such are the opening scenes in Musica Cubana, a semifictional documentary by Argentine director German Kral that was released late last year. It is being screened during this year's Miami International Film Festival.

"Every time I was in Cuba to prepare and shoot the film, I was impressed by the power and presence of music," Kral says from Germany, where he lives. "I had the privilege to work with these great young musicians and discovered that their life is just music. They play music, think music, eat music, drink music. They could not survive one day without being able to play their instruments or sing."

In 2001, while Kral was shooting a film about taxi drivers in Buenos Aires, he received an e-mail from famed German director Wim Wenders, who was one of Kral's professors and mentors at the Munich Film School. Wenders had been planning to make a movie about a young generation of musicians called "The Sons of Buena Vista." But his schedule was tight, so he offered to be the project's executive producer if Kral would direct. The latter cautiously accepted, though he was worried that the result would inevitably be compared to Wenders's own critically acclaimed docudrama about Cuban music, Buena Vista Social Club.

Kral and Stephan Puchner wrote a script centered on Leiva and an ambitious taxi driver named Barbaro (played by popular actor Barbaro Marin), who befriends the musician while driving him to the Radio Progreso show. Barbaro, who manages bands on the side, persuades Leiva to lead a supergroup composed of the best young talent in town. Reluctant at first, Leiva quips, "I'm too old, I'm 85. Why don't we just go get a drink instead?"

But Leiva eventually agrees to the plan, and the two roam Havana's clubs and recording studios to scope out prospects. They manage to assemble a dozen with sundry backgrounds, dubbing the collective "The Sons of Cuba."

"One day, Carnegie Hall," says Barbaro. Instead, the ad hoc band ends up in Tokyo for a triumphant finale. Kral says the ending was intended to be "something really utopian, to give the film's plot enough drive and tension. Also, it had to be a city that starkly contrasts with Havana."

Musica Cubana is highly realistic, and interspersed with sincere, introspective monologues from "The Sons of Cuba," including vocalists such as the sultry Osdalgia Lesmes and Mario "Mayito" Rivera, pianist Roberto Carcassés, and bassist (and N.G. La Banda founder) Feliciano Arango. The only professional actor here is Marin. Despite its fictional premise, the romanticized story (which bears traces of Wenders's influence) principally serves to highlight contemporary Cuban musicians who've retained a native sound while mixing in various outside sources such as American hip-hop and funk. "We created the band only to tell the story," explains Kral. "It was essential to show the lives of the musicians with utmost authenticity and credibility."

Occasionally, the results of this genre blending are mediocre. During their talent hunt, Barbaro and Leiva go to a concert by Interactivo, a loud, energetic group led by rapper Telmary Díaz. (Think of a bouncy megaband plagued by Jamiroquai-inspired singers, noisy horns, and an MC so lacking in flow that her lyrics are merely shouted in lingering bursts.) But other "The Sons of Cuba" members, particularly guitar player Juan "Cotó" Antomarchi (who kills it during his solo at the Tokyo concert), are simply bad-ass musicians who have fostered distinct sounds that still exude the finesse and subtleties of traditional forms.

Ever since its colonial beginnings in the villages and plantations, Cuban music has been shaped from an expansive, multicultural mishmash -- African, Native American, Spanish, and others -- delivering a medley of beautiful melodies and tons and tons of rhythm. It's everywhere. Even as you walk down the street ... peep the vigorous rumba on the corner.

While cleaning his old records, including an album by Leiva and another by Beny Moré, "The Sons of Cuba" vocalist El Nene recalls something the Buena Vista old-timers would tell him. "When your voice doesn't respond anymore," he says, "tighten your ass and push forward -- your voice will come."

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Omar Sommereyns

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