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CUBA: ISLAND OF MUSIC (director/producer: Gary Keys; editors: David Himmelstein/Dora Soltani; cast: Gary Keys, Billy Taylor; Runtime: 80; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Brendan Ward; 2003)
“The visuals had a beguiling amateur home video quality look.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Gary Keys is a filmmaker and music teacher teacher at Columbia University. His university colleague Brendan Ward suggested he teach a master music class in Havana. Keys while there also co-produced with Ward a documentary Cuba: Island of Music. It gives him a chance to showoff the island’s rich African-Cuban musical heritage, a music he dearly loves. The film is a conventional talking head type of documentary, with noted jazz musician Billy Taylor adding his insights, accompanied by locale footage of many of the unknown – at least, to most Americans – Cuban musicians performing their specialities from Barrio street musicians to the ordinary Cubans playing and dancing with each other in celebration of their unshakable human spirit. The visuals had a beguiling amateur home video quality look, where we see a lot of sexy men and women shaking their asses, retro American cars, and flashy musical and dance numbers including a ‘circle of fire’ dance.

Not forgetting he’s a teacher, Keys takes us on a tour of the island’s musical hot spots and lectures us on the different types of Cuban music from the older audience’s favorite bolero to the younger audience’s choice of salsa. Since the main influence is from the slaves who came over from Africa, the instrument of choice is the drum and the sounds vary from jazz to gospel. There’s also a European influence that calls for instruments like violins and trumpets. Keys reminds us that music and dance are not separated with the African-Cuban music like it is in the States and Europe. The contemporary music is highly rhythmic and vibrant, as the Cubans link it to their everyday lives and to love. Keys remains awed that the music acts so readily as a source of communication, as seeing this in person reinforces what he always believed.

Keys poses a rhetorical question: If Cuba is a repressive society, why in contrast is the music so free-spirited and the Cubans so musical? He can’t resist giving the answer at the conclusion, that the slaves who brought their music over reasoned that their life was not going to be ruined by their oppression.

The documentary is most valuable in profiling renowned artists such as Orquestra Aragon, Los Zafiros, and Manolin, as the press kit suggests, these are the “stars” that bring Cuban music to the world.

It has the look and feel of something PBS would air, and makes for a pleasant enough look at the contemporary Cuban scene. The joyous people depicted puts a different face on the island than the way it is usually portrayed by the American government and Cuban exiles.

The film made its U.S. premiere on January 16, 2004, at the Quad Cinema in New York.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”