Chucho Valdés on Improvising the Musical Score for “Esteban”


Manuel Betancourt comments on Esteban, a moving, award-winning Cuban film about a young boy who aspires to be a pianist. He writes about the screening and the Q&A that followed the screening at the packed theater, where director Jonal Cosculluela was joined on stage by Valdés and his producer and wife Maritza Ceballo. Betancourt recounts the conversation, in which they spoke about why Reynaldo was the perfect fit for Esteban and how Valdés improvised the entire score at his studio in Málaga, Spain. Here are excerpts:

Havana Film Festival New York kicked off its 18th annual program with Jonal Cosculluela’s inspiring Esteban. The movie tells the rousing story of a young Afro-Cuban boy (Reynaldo Guanche) who suddenly becomes inspired to learn how to play the piano even though he cannot afford to pay the old, cranky teacher (Hugo, played by Manuel Porto) who realizes how talented the boy really is. Esteban scrounges up money for his lessons, fights with his single mother who cannot wrap her head around this random obsession, and begins getting better and better. It all culminates, as all flicks like these always do, in a final heart-tugging performance. There was barely a dry eye in the house at HFFNY’s opening night ceremony at the DGA Theater, with many an audience member openly shedding happy tears once the credits rolled.

Part of what makes Esteban strike a chord is its spare but emotional musical score. Consisting solely of piano arrangements composed by none other than Grammy Award-winner and Cuban musical icon Chucho Valdés. On hand to present the film alongside his director, Valdés was visibly moved when sharing how every piece he wrote for the movie was performed on his own Steinway piano which is signed by his own father, Bebo Valdés. It’s a detail made all the more significant given that the guy who sold him the piano didn’t even know about it. Talk about meant to be!

[. . .] Chucho: For me it was all about digging into the script. That alone drove me to work. And more than that, to see the love and passion that these guys were working with, that alone was an inspiration, really. I also felt like I was a part of a story in a different way. I also starting playing the piano when I was a little kid. Only, of course, I was pretty lucky to have my teacher at home: my father. Bebo was my Hugo. But I also knew plenty of my friends growing up who wanted to learn how to play the piano, and I saw them struggle to pay for those classes and sometimes miss out on them when they had no money to do so. In that way the story felt like my own. [. . .]

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