“Cuba: Island of Music”: A behind-the-scenes look at Afro-Cuban music’s role in the daily life of Cubans

By on November 28, 2016

The 2004 documentary Cuba: Island of Music is a behind-the-scenes look at Afro-Cuban music’s role in the daily life of Cubans.

While the people of Cuba begin their nine consecutive days of mourning for their leader, Fidel Castro — who died at age of ninety on November 25, 2016 — and thousands have celebrated, and continue to celebrate, his passing, pouring into the streets of Miami’s Little Havana, we thought it would be a good time to revisit Keys’s excellent documentary Cuba: Island of Music to remind us, not of the Cold War icon whose death is dominating the main news about Cuba, but to instead help remind us about the island’s rich musical legacy, which endures to this day.

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Prolific documentary filmmaker and concert producer Gary Keys brings the audience into the heart and soul of Havana, through a vibrant mosaic of street musicians, big bands, dancers, religious rituals, and classic cars, and we’re also shown the impact of Afro-Cuban music in New York City, with the music and commentary by jazz legends Billy Taylor, Candido Camero, and Chico O’Farrill.

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Gary Keys

The award-winning filmmaker — the producer of numerous other documentaries, including Count Basie: Then as Now, Count’s the King and 42nd Street:River to River, as well as directing live concerts for Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stevie Wonder and Chuck Berry — ponders how such a repressive society have an incredible music that involves so much freedom, and then provides us with some the reasons he music has endured and the people have flourished.

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Keys traveled to Havana in December of 2000 as a representative of Columbia University, teaching a masterclass on film, and while he was there he shot the footage which became part of what you’ll see in Cuba: Island of Music.

Each section of Cuba: Island of Music is introduced by Keys as he drives his car around New York City, talking about the importance of music in Cuban life.

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The focus here — unlike Wim Wenders’s documentary Buena Vista Social Club, which focused on great Cuban performers of the 1950’s — is a contemporary look at Havana’s poor communities which are rich with musical wealth.

The 72-minute film — shot on videotape and looking, at times, like a PBS-style travel documentary — features renowned artists such as Orquesta Aragon, Los Zafiros, Manolin and many others, including “barrio” musician from urban streets and country villages, offering up brief samplings of modern salsa-based hybrids involving rap (Raperos de Zanja), Asian music and American rhythm and blues.

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Keys — who died August 9, 2015, age 81 — finished the film with the help of Gothamjazz.com (the website launched in April 2002) and executive producer Ben Pomeroy, which in addition to delving into the musical legacy of the island also carried the message that the United States should end their trade embargo with Cuba, which was still very much in place when this film was made.

(In 2014, President Obama announced that the United States had begun the process to normalize relations between the two countries, re-establishing an embassy in Havana.

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The president also announced the discussion of groundbreaking diplomatic relations and the plan to relax travel and trade restrictions and economic sanctions. On March 20, 2016, President Obama visited Cuba, becoming the first President in eighty years to visit the island).

The island of Cuba is a melting melting pot of different cultures from all around the world, largely made up of people of Spanish, African and Asian descent, due to the country’s history of colonial migration.

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The combination of isolation and socialism on Cuban popular music has had two pronounced effects.

One was to keep a large body of state-supported musicians active and in good health, so that the tradition of longevity in Cuban bands was even further accentuated, with institutions of up to eighty years of age regularly surviving. Many of these musicians played traditional forms such as son or trova, leading to the preservation of the music.

The second was to lead the vanguard of popular Cuban dance music to pursue a totally distinct path to the rest of Latin America, at once modernizing yet out-of-date.

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Tourism to Cuba — from many countries around the world other than from the United States — has helped to create interest and promote Cuban music around the world, particularly during the late 80s and 1990s due to an increased interest in so-called World Music and salsa dance crazes around the planet, and now Cuban bands are more in demand than ever.

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The roots of most Cuban musical forms lie in the cabildos, a form of “social club” among African slaves transported to the island.

Cabildos preserved African cultural traditions and customs, even after the Emancipation in 1886 forced them to unite with the Roman Catholic church.

Cuba’s principal roots are in Spain and West Africa, but over time vibrant Cuban music — one of the most popular and well-like music genres in the world — has been influenced by diverse genres from different countries.

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Most important among these are France, the United States, and Jamaica. Each culture — particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries — has contributed largely to what defines Cuban music, combined from African rhumba rhythms and Spanish vocal melodies and other sources, but one of the main influences was from the New York jazz scene of the 1940s.

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As a result, Cuban music has been immensely influential in other countries, contributing not only to the development of jazz and salsa, but also to Argentinian tango, Ghanaian high-life, West African Afrobeat, and Spanish “nuevo flamenco.”

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Generations of Cuban musicians have fled the island to escape Castro’s regime and develop their musical careers unfettered by political constraints, while others have stayed in their country, and flourished under communist rule that actually fostered their musical development, elevating Cuba’s music in the eyes of the outside world.

Those who’ve stayed in Cuba have also seen the music — particularly in the later part of the 20th century — intermingled with an emerging religion known as Santería, which developed and spread throughout Cuba, Haiti and other neighboring islands.

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Santería influenced Cuba’s music, as percussion is an inherent part of the religion. Each orisha, or deity, is associated with colors, emotions, Roman Catholic saints and drum patterns called toques.

Keys also shot footage in New York City, and met with a couple of jazz icons: Dr. Billy Taylor (seen below) — the celebrated jazz pianist, composer and longtime champion of Afro-Cuban music provides a brief, basic demonstration of its foundation in multiple rhythms — and the late Chico O’Farrill, the veteran Afro-Cuban jazz band leader (who died in 2001), who offers up their unique perspectives on Cuba’s music while refusing to talk openly about Castro.

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You can probably find Cuba: Island of Music online, but if you’re feeling adventurous, check out our collection of music documentaries now streaming over on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.