Tunes and tune-ups: Documentaries look at Cuba’s music and racing scenes

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A review byPaul Guzzo for The Tampa Tribune.

The music and cars of Cuba have long been symbols of life on the island nation.

Melodies of the “son Cubano” style arise from street corners, restaurants and cafes, creating the carefree soundtrack of Old Havana, while big-band tunes made famous in the documentary “Buena Vista Social Club” play throughout tourist-heavy areas, harking back to the pre-Communist days when the city was Las Vegas on the Caribbean.

Then there are the squadrons of classic automobiles that rumble down the streets, showcasing how the U.S. travel and trade embargo has frozen Cuba’s urban landscape in time and how ingenious locals with limited resources have managed to keep the relics running.

These threads of Cuban life are explored in two documentaries showing at this year’s Gasparilla International Film Festival, running from Wednesday through April 3 at Muvico Centro Ybor.

“The Forbidden Shore,” at 6:35 p.m. Friday, features the depth of Cuban music and the artists whose talents commend them for global stardom but whose isolation in the politics of the island stifles their fame.

“Havana Motor Club,” screening 8:35 p.m. Friday, explores the preparations made for the island’s first legal drag race in more than 50 years. Before the sanctioned event, held in January 2013, racers worked in secret to turn classic cars into speed machines for underground competitions.

The directors will attend their movies.

“This film became a passion of mine,” said Ronald Chapman, who directed and produced “The Forbidden Shore.” “Ninety percent of the musicians in Cuba cannot get off the island. Because of the embargo, they cannot sign with multinational music companies. But their music needs to be shared.”

At last year’s Gasparilla Film Festival, through his documentary “The Poet of Havana,” Chapman introduced Tampa to the music of Carlos Varela, often referred to as Cuba’s Bob Dylan for his poetic lyrics on contemporary issues there.

HBO discovered the movie at the Tampa festival and has shown it on premium channels.

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Before Chapman’s work, the only major documentary produced on the island nation’s music was the Academy Award-nominated “The Buena Vista Social Club,” which follows an ensemble of legendary of Cuban musicians as they perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

“Cuban music is more than what was heard in ‘Buena Vista Social Club,’ but because that is a popular documentary made on Cuban music, it is all many people know,” said Chapman, who lives in Toronto. “There are over 33 genres of uniquely Cuban music that have been hidden, not just from the U.S. but the international community. I wanted to show what was going on in Cuba musically.”

For “The Forbidden Shore,” Chapman recorded more than 100 interviews, as well as 800 songs performed by 60 Cuban musicians spanning genres such as of son and salsa, trova, nueva trova, reggaeton, rock, jazz, metal, rap, electronic, classical, choral, pop, changu, danzón, rumba, yoruba, bolero, conga, timba and mambo.

Among those the audience will hear and meet through the film are five-time Grammy Award winning pianist Chucho Valdés; singer Haydée Milanés, whose style has been compared to nine-time Grammy Award winner Norah Jones; and David Calzado, leader of Cuba’s beloved 16-piece ensemble “Charanga Habanera.”

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“Havana Motor Club” director Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt sought to give the world its first look at a drag race scene in Cuba that for decades was unknown to many people there.

The sport was banned by the communist government shortly after it rose to power because it was considered a reckless symbol of capitalism. Yet secret races continued in desolate areas of the island, including the outskirts of Havana, safe from the eyes of law enforcement.

Perlmutt decided to follow the best of these speedsters as they prepared to step into the mainstream during the first drag race sanctioned by Cuba’s communist government.

While filming, he came to realize these men also encapsulate the variety of the Cuban populace.

There is Carlos Alvarez Sanchez, who through a wealthy Cuban-American friend living in Miami is able to import top-of-the-line parts for his modern Porsche. He stands in stark contrast to his top rival, Reynaldo López García, who has little access to the U.S. and through sheer ingenuity — often making his own parts — keeps his 1955 Chevrolet racing at top speeds.

Jose Antonio Madera boasts that his 1951 Ford is powered by the largest motor in Cuba, taken from a sunken boat once used to smuggle Cubans to Miami. Madera struggles with whether to enter the sanctioned race or sell his car and start a new life in the U.S.

And there is Armando Munnet Rodriguez, driving a 1956 Ford, who owes his life to the government born from the Cuban Revolution. Diagnosed with cancer several years ago, he was successfully treated through a socialist medical system that promises health care to all.

“We felt these races provided us a unique portrait of Cuba today,” Perlmutt said. “Each is affected by the politics of Cuba and the U.S. in different ways.”

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This is an underlying theme of “The Forbidden Shore” as well, director Chapman said.

U.S. policies on Cuba have helped stifle the musicians.

Because international music labels are either headquartered in the U.S. or have a satellite operation here, the embargo has prevented them from signing Cuban talent living on the island nation. Still, in an ironic twist, these politics have benefited Cuban music as well.

The musicians, Chapman said, work in the same genres heard in the U.S. but do so with an inimitable Cuban flavor because no one has told them to abandon the style and conform to what’s hot in international pop culture.

“If not for the embargo, I don’t think they would have evolved the way they did,” Chapman said. “They don’t make music for commercial success because there is no commercial success for them. They don’t do it for limos or gold chains or parties. It is only about their art and relationship with other artists.”

For those not drawn to either of these films’ political messages, “The Forbidden Shore” doubles as an on-screen concert of Cuban music, and “Havana Motor Club” features enough car talk to fascinate any gearhead.

Both Chapman and Perlmutt are aware that as relations between the U.S. and Cuba continue to evolve, and moves to lift the embargo progress, those things that make the island nation’s music and cars distinctive may fade into history.

Perlmutt said it is already happening to a degree in the automotive industry. With easier access to car parts and money from the U.S., the ingenuity needed to maintain classic cars is no longer as necessary as it once was.

And with drag racing now legal, though on a limited basis, the communist government has shown some willingness to make changes the Cuban people want after decades of steadfast resistance to standards established after the revolution.

Still, the directors hope future generations hang onto those attributes that make the island nation special.

“Cuba is a place that respects art for art’s sake,” Chapman said.

“Ask someone on the street almost anywhere in the world who their favorite poet is and they will look at you like you’re crazy. Ask a Cuban that same question and many have an immediate answer. It’s a special place.”

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