Thursday 3 September 2020

CaribbeanTales bringing Japanese Cuban movie to film festival in Toronto

 Jazzin’ to Cu-Pop in new Caribbean music movie

BY STEPHEN WEIR Caribbean Music is more than just Soca, Chutney, Calypso and Reggae and a new movie by a Japanese producer is about to prove it.  The film Cu-Bop Across The Border will be schooling Canadians about the Afro-Jazz sounds of New York and Cuba this month at the CaribbeanTales Film Festival (CTFF).

The annual film festival runs from September 9th until October 2nd. Because of the Covid shutdown the latest Caribbean films will take place online on the Video-On-Demand CaribbeanTales-TV platform with eight nights and 25+ short and feature films of live stream entertainment.  The Cuban movie is the showcase flick for the CTFF’s September 30th programme: Sounds of the Caribbean.

Two genius Cuban musicians; Havana Saxophone virtuoso Cesar Lopez and Axel Tosca Harlem’s wild man on the piano, are the stars of the this true 98-minute film. When Tosca, the prodigal son comes back to his hometown of Havana, a fascinating Afro-Cuban jazz jam session Lopez’s home turf takes place. It is good cinematography and fantastic music.

Cu-Bop Across the Border captures the small concert held inside a Cuban university. And like the title of the movie implies, this unique style of Jazz is more about the musicians living hand-to-mouth in New York City and just a  smidge better in the backstreets of Havana.  Call it a Musical Tale of Two Cities as the movie takes you into the alley music clubs where life isn’t that great for hard working socialists and free enterprise Jazz Men alike.

Cu-Bop is a jazz term that popped up in New York City back in the 40s. It refers to a style of  music based on Afro-Cuban rhythms that have been mashed up with American jazz harmonies. Championed by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie this unique  Afro-Cuban jazz movement was always stronger in the United States than in Cuba.

In this movie we follow the fun loving Cesar Lopez around the island music scene.  He is loved and respected by all ever.  Since joining the legendary Cuban band IRAKERE at the age 18 he has become a cultural icon.  Since joining in 1985 the band has been allowed to tour the world, Sax playing Lopez says that he got to share the stage with “Jazz masters like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Winston Marsalis, Michel Camilo, Paquito D’ Rivera and others.”

Director and self confessed Tokyo jazz bar fanatic Shinichi Takahashi catches up with Lopez and his next band “HABANA ENSEMBLE” playing the j-bars of Cuba.  Formed in ‘97 they are as much a must-see act for cultural tourists as a night at the Tropicana.

 Slow at first to catch on to Cu-Bop, Habana Ensemble did record their take on the musical form on a record simply called  “Cubop”. 

While the movie shows the 51-year old bandleader comfortable in a bedraggled Havana, Tosca has found New York a hard struggle. Homeless, wandering the streets of Harlem with an electronic piano on his back, the Black man with the wild blond afro has had to scramble for all he can get. 

The film starts with early footage of Tosca playing in a Cuban restaurant in New York. He is performing what he calls Soup Music -- old-time Cuban standards that the rubes slurps up like a bowls of bisques.

The young pianist and singer was born in Cuba into a musical family. His mother, who has the briefest of brief appearances in the movie (family issues?), is the legendary Cuban vocalist Xiomara Laugart.

Growing up in Havana, Tosca shunned jazz in favour Hip-Hop. After coming to the States, he continued playing contemporary music and actually performed a little with the Funkedelics.

He has now seen the light and has been part of the Jazz band (U)nity for over five years now. Yes he has a dumpy NYC apartment, but he has a big following and a self-titled CD that is doing well.

Tosca speaks both English and Spanish and as a result the film is in both languages!  In the Toronto showing there will be subtitles for those of us who don’t speak both tongues!

The Cu-bop Japanese movie producers jumped through hoops to get Axel Tosca and his sidemen into Cuba. Relations between Cuba and the US were rocky – they musicians had to sneak into Cuba via Mexico!  

Turns out the Cuba government loved Tosca’s visit. The Minister of Culture shows up in the final scene of the movie bear hugging the bleach blonde pianist. But as the curtains come down on this three-year old movie, one wonders now if the same would happen if the countries were reversed. With an anti-Cuban president now in power in the US, could this must-see movie have been made?