It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when Cuban music dominated New York nightlife, when Cuban big bands sold out the hottest clubs, and Anglos scrambled to cover the latest mambos and cha-chas. The revolution and embargo snuffed out that scene, and this tradition, with its blend of European, African, and native influences, remained virtually unheard here for four decades. In 1999 Buena Vista Social Club sparked a renaissance, and now LatinBeat’s sidebar on Cuban music documentaries offers a closer look at what we’ve been missing.
Three feature-length programs comprise 14 shorts—some never seen outside Cuba—showcasing vintage performances, and at least one rendition too many of the axiomatic “Peanut Vendor.” In Nosotros la Música (1965), Rogelio París condenses the history of Cuban music—from a Busby Berkeleyan ballet of African dances to a beachside promenade with the Piñero Septet’s “Échale Salsita.”
Néstor Almendros’s Ritmo de Cuba (1960) captures the ruffle-sleeved Alberto Alonso Ballet in a rare studio performance. That Ritmo was sponsored by the Cuban tourism board seems ironic now, given Almendros’s later docs criticizing Castro’s persecution of dissidents and homosexuals. As for this sidebar’s films, all produced by the state-run ICAIC studios, the music often follows the beat of the party line. In La Última Controversia (Sergio Núñez, 1988), two aging troubadours recall the tradition of dueling décimas; when asked to compliment each other for a change, the older retiree praises his partner’s revolutionary fervor. A history of son and a profile of the Trío Matamoros, ¿De Dónde Son los Cantantes? posits that son boomed in the 1920s and ’30s because of its links with the rising labor movement. The curiously apolitical Nostalgia del Cha Cha Chá (Miguel Torres, 1991) avoids any such claims.
Most revealing, however, are the Behind the Música portraits of stars like Benny Moré, the Satchmo-esque Bola de Nieve, the soprano-turned-Follies star Rita Montaner, the peasant troubadour Chicho Ibáñez, and Juan Formell’s Los Van Van. That these legends remain mostly unknown here is our loss; LatinBeat’s partial redress is our gain.