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Music in Cuban Cinema

Music in Cuban Cinema

by Ricardo Alberto Pérez

When we refer to the relationship between music and film in Cuba in over the last fifty years, we must embark on a complicated and fascinating journey. We have to penetrate into two of the most important cultural processes that have been underway in Cuban society during this time period. The Cuban Institute for Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC in its Spanish-language acronym) was founded in the fervor of revolutionary triumph in 1959 and to a large extent has been the protagonist in this scenario.

In just one decade, the pioneers of the Cuban cinematographic industry came to understand the imperative need to encourage a phenomenon with sufficient creative depth and scope that would be able to bring a new sound to the films they wished to make and that would be a product equal in quality. For that reason, the ICAIC’s Grupo de Experimentación Sonora (Experimental Sound Group) was formed at the end of 1969. The exceptional musician and composer Leo Brouwer led the Group, attracting the best of Cuban music’s avant-garde in order to create a solid foundation for music production in the Cuban film industry.

The basic essence of this project was to forge a deep, unstoppable path that would lead towards what was later identified as a fusion within the national musical experience. With research as a basic premise, musicians in the Group focused on specific problems such as the celebration of the contemporary, identity as memory and, especially, as a break from the influence of external sources so that they could create a truly local product.

All of this occurred in an era of astounding musical richness at the end of a decade that had seen the emergence of phenomena like the Beatles in England, Tropicália in Brazil, new songwriting styles in Latin America and Spain, the revelation in the West of Indian music in the person of Ravi Shankar and the clear consolidation of rock and jazz as genres of the future. Talented musicians and singers of the ilk of Sergio Vitier, Silvio Rodríguez, Pablo Milanés, Eduardo Ramos, Emiliano Salvador and Noel Nicola gathered together under Leo’s leadership and managed to absorb al that wisdom and achieved a miracle—they transformed into “cubanidad,” in other words, into aa genuine Cuban style.

Much to the satisfaction of these artists, time has proved that they were right. Most of their theoretic objectives were realized. Their work succeeded in getting rid of rhetoric and redundancies and their experience represents a spontaneous school that has trained most of the Cuban musicians who were later interested in composing for the movies. Whenever you listen to some of the music that was written for the cinema by these musicians, you can confirm Leo Brouwer’s top aspiration: “The prime merit of music for the cinema is that it shouldn’t get in the way of the film.”

One of the first Cuban filmmakers to see and completely understand the value of the work being done by the Grupo de Experimentación Sonora was the great documentary filmmaker Santiago Álvarez. He had the clear, spontaneous notion of inserting their soundtracks into his legendary Noticiero ICAIC Latinoamericano (ICAIC Latin American Newsreel) which was a genuine jewel that lives on in the memories of many Cubans because of the ingenious way it had of capturing the symptoms of a decisive era for the future of our country. His long documentary features were also very popular. Later other directors of fiction films such as Sara Gómez, Sergio Giral, Manuel Herrera and Octavio Cortázar showed the same faith as Santiago Álvarez in Leo Brouwer’s troupe.

The most remarkable feature of the music for Cuban movies after the founding of ICAIC is its capacity for carrying out a sort of de-alienating operation resulting in an authentic product, able to confirm the Cuban identity and contribute more substance to the films themselves.

Music and film have mutually enriched each other. Music has been a determining factor for the evolution and consolidation of Cuban films and Cuban films have permitted Cuban music to grow towards new horizons, become truly “contemporary” and immerse itself into that wealth of sound that comes from fusing genres.

Our most important directors have often used music as a special “actor.” In one case, filmmaker Enrique Pineda Barnet, who directed La Bella del Alhambra and other important films, expressed: “If music is to be placed anywhere in the cinematographic corpus, I would say it is the feeling of each film.” It is also important to stress that there are some Cuban films in which the music is an essential protagonist, for example, Jorge Luis Sánchez’s El Beny, Manuel Herrera’s Zafiros, locura azul and Pineda Barnet’s La Bella del Alhambra. These are all films that play an important role in revealing key moments in Cuban music.

These days the bond between music and film has become an important instrument allowing us to relive the different periods through which Cuban society has passed in almost six decades. The two languages go hand in hand to provide testimony to the way we are. So phenomena such as Irakere, Los Van Van, Buenavista Social Club and Habana Abierta have had a strong presence in the movies.

Much the same way, over the decades, other musicians and composers have been very important players in this story: Chucho Valdés, José María Vitier, Juan Piñera and the innovative and prolific Edesio Alejandro, who is considered a veritable specialist when it comes to producing music for the movies, especially connected to the work of director Fernando Pérez. At the present time, a group of young composers, some who are involved in electronic music, continue to contribute to this ample dialogue between the two languages.