Cuba in Black, Brown and Beige: A Talk With Filmmaker Gary Keys

Cuba in Black, Brown and Beige:
A Talk With Filmmaker Gary Keys
by Eugene Holley, Jr.

Cuba in Black, Brown and Beige No other country has contributed to the music of the United States more than Cuba. Although its Afro-Hispanic musical forms like the rumba, cha-cha, bolero and the son have energized many forms of American music from jazz to salsa, the four decade-old U.S. embargo has hampered — though not completely cut off — news of what’s happening in that Caribbean nation. Indeed, despite the intense pressure to keep the embargo in place, it has not stopped the island’s musical evolution, or the exchange of musical influences between Cuba and the U.S.

The 80-minute documentary, Cuba: Island of Music, by African-American filmmaker Gary Keys, is a profound and pulsating exploration of that island’s vibrant musical civilization. CIOM was shown at the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan from Dec. 6-9 as part of a Gary Keys retrospective. The Detroit-born Keys is no stranger to music. His subjects have included Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach and Gerry Mulligan. In 1992, he released Good Time Sunday, a film about gospel music. But his most celebrated subject is Duke Ellington. Keys, who bears a striking resemblance to Ellington’s alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, produced two films on the Duke: Mexican Suite (1970) and Memories of Duke (1980). Both films chronicled Ellington’s tour of Mexico in 1968.

Keys, who co-founded the Museum of Modern Art’s Jazz in the Garden program, was teaching documentary filmmaking at Columbia University when a colleague, Brendan Ward, asked him to teach a film course in Havana, which is how CIOM got started. Armed only with the perceptions about the island he gained in the U.S., Keys states in the film, “I was confused … How could a repressive society also have an incredible music that had so much freedom …?” Shot in and around Havana and in Manhattan, CIOM is all about music, not politics. “The music is everywhere,” Keys says from his East Side apartment in New York. “We were 50 miles west of Havana. There was a bandstand on every corner. There was the group, Afro-Cuba de Mantanzas. They were just playing there in this little, funky roller skating rink. And on the corner there would be another big band.”

Keys also states that the Cubans “let me just run the streets and do whatever I want to do.” With that freedom, Keys compiled compelling footage of a plethora of ensembles and musicians. The late Cubop jazz composer/arranger Chico O’Farrill talks about the Havana he left in the late ’40s. Jazz pianist Billy Taylor recalls his initiation into Afro-Cuban rhythms by the brilliant conga master Candido Camero. There’s also a powerful folkloric fire dance and the sweet sounds of legendary charanga band, Orquesta Aragon, contrasted by the R&B-influenced combo, Los Zafiros, the so-called “Doctor of Salsa” Manolin, the sanctified syncopations of a Santeria ceremony and the Latinized, hip-hop beats of young Cuban rappers. The musical selections included the Cuban standards “Guantanamera,” and “Chan Chan” Those images, along with other snapshots of everyday Cuban life, from baseball players to cigar makers, display a country where the African extension of dance, music, bloodlines and language are central to its cultural lifeblood.

In CIOM, and in his other documentaries, Keys shortens the distance between the viewer and the subject with close-up shots of musicians playing their instruments. “In live music there’s the performer, the audience and that thing that happens between them,” Keys states. “Now, you can’t duplicate that [interaction] on film because you’re separated. You have to bring the image closer, like you’re there in the saxophone section playing music, like you’re a participant.”

Gary Keys has two Ellington-related projects in the works. He’s producing a play, The Duke and the Duchess, about Ellington’s 1943 Carnegie Hall concert and the bandleader’s encounter with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Keys also plans to release a 20-track CD of unreleased Ellington music from his 1968 Mexican tour, which includes Billy Eckstine’s “Jelly Jelly” and W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.”

For more information, contact Gary Keys Productions, 228 East 89th Street, New York, NY 10129. The phone/fax number is 534-8034.