Caribbean Music and Cinema

Cinema has played an important role in the representation and diffusion of Latin American and Caribbean music throughout the Americas. Africans and their descendants have played significant roles in this process given their importance to the region’s music. Films from around the region attest to those contributions. Cuba represents a pioneer in this area although films from other Caribbean islands also indicates the power of music in the region.

The robust Cuban film production has helped to bring music to the world, although the censoring of the movie P.M. by Sabá Cabrera Infante y Orlando Jiménez-Leal had a chilling influence on the type of music and how it would be portrayed in Cuban films for decades.  The government’s censoring of the film marked an important shift in the relationship between intellectuals who had supported the revolution and the Castro government. The 1961 film, nonetheless, represents an important marker of an era and a crucial point of the cultural wars in Cuba. It is worth savoring. See it here:

Huberto Solás’ Cecilia (1983), based on the nineteenth-century novel Cecilia Valdés by Cirilo Villaverde also utilizes music to represent an era and a mood. Other Cuban films from Solás’s Lucía and Tomás Guiterrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment follow this example. Solás smartly uses the Cuban classic  “Guantanamera” to depict a Utopian version of the Cuban workers in the fields.

Solás’ Miel para Ochún (Honey for Oshun, 2001) also utilizes Cuban music as an important protagonist in the story line that involves paying homage to Ochún, theSanteria oricha of beauty. The main character, a ‘white’ Cuban exile, returns to Cuba to find his mother who he barely remembers and who he believed had abandoned him: He not only comes into contact with Afro-Cuban culture. He embarks on a journey to give ‘honey to Ochún.’ In Santeria, music plays a critical part, and thus music represents an important aspect of the film. 

Manuel Octavio Gómez’s 1982 musical  Patakín provides a modern reading of two Yoruba deities in conflict: Changó, the diety of thunder (represented by a man who lives off of his wife) and Oggún, the deity of war and guardian of arms and metals (played by a hard-working machinist) in conflict. Although drawing on popular idioms, the film, which was billed as Cuba’s first musical, was not successful in engaging Cuban audiences. 

Gloria Rolando’s Oggún (1992), however, provides viewers with an engaging understanding of the Afro-Cuban Oricha of the same nameThrough the multi-layered testimony of Lázaro Ross, the lead singer of the Conjunto Folclórico Nacional de Cuba, a devotee of Oggún, Rolando presents viewers with stories that allow them to understand the Afro-Cuban religion which remains vital to Cubans in and outside of Cuba. 

Films such as Rigoberto López’s Yo soy del son a la salsa explores the development of salsa from its beginnings in Cuban son, while Luis Felipe Bernaza’s Hasta la reina baila el danzón (Even Queen Isabel Dances the Danzón, 1991) combin interviews with surrealistic recreations as he satirizing many popular Cuban beliefs. The director includes scenes from Yoruba ceremonies and an innovative rendition of Afro-Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén famous “Sensemayá.” 

Other documentaries on legendary figures such as Chano Pozo and Joseito Fernandez as well as encounters such as with Dizzie Gillespie and Harry Belafonte add to Cuba’s extensive list of documentaries. José Sánchez-Montes’ endearing documentary Bola De Nieve (2002), for example, provides a brief biography of the life of one of Cuba’s musical treasures.

Films such as the 1983 Rue Cases Negres (Sugar Cane Alley, 1983) by Martinican director Euzhan Palcy represents another portrayal of poverty, and the lacking educational opportunities. The director uses music at times in the foreground at times in the background to highlight the connection to Africa and to the ancestors.

The film Nueba Yol (Angel Muñiz, 1996), inspired by the migrant experience of Dominicans in New York, features the song “Yo me voy para nueba yol.” (I’m going to New York).

The Puerto Rican film La Gran Fiesta (The Big Party, 1986) portrays the 1942 farewell party to the patrons of a casino in San Juan since it will be turned into a U. S. military base. Director  Marcos  Zurinaga utilizes music throughout the film. An important scene in the film occurs at the party when the  Puerto Rican orchestra plays “No me mires así” (Don’t look at me any that way), but other Caribbean forms including salsa and cha cha cha appear in the film. 

Many other films around the multilingual Caribbean utilize music in important, if not, critical roles and represent sources for understanding the rich heritage of Caribbean music. Add to those films Hollywood films on the Caribbean that have featured United States residents with multiple connections to the Caribbean.